On the Baptism of Christ, and Betty White!

         I’ve heard it said that all prayers are answered, yes, no, and not right now. This has proven true in my life, and I’ve come to appreciate that the hardest of these answers, by far, is not right now.

         I thought about that this week as I was watching a documentary on Betty White. Betty met the love of her life on the gameshow, Password. The host, Allen Ludden, and Betty immediately fell head-over-heels in love with each other, and happily started a long-distance relationship, because the incredibly talented and by then remarkably accomplished Betty White lived in Hollywood, and Allen was based in New York.

         So Betty would find reasons to fly to New York to be on the show as often as she could. And when Allen would see Betty he wouldn’t say “hello”, instead he would say “will you marry me?”

         Betty resolutely said no. Not because she didn’t want to or didn’t want Allen to ask – she wanted both those things. She said no because she was also in love with her career, and California, and didn’t want to live in New York. She also wasn’t sure if she was able to be a mother to Allen’s daughters.

         To show he thought all of these things would be fine, Allen bought a ring, and offered it to Betty with a more formal proposal. And she said no. So Allen did what any logical person in love would do, and wore it around his neck on a chain at all times, including when they vacationed together.

         When Easter rolled around the next year, Allen sent Betty a stuffed bunny, wearing very fancy earrings, so Betty called Allen up (they were still living on different coasts), and instead of saying hello she said “yes”. She laughs and says it was the bunny not the earrings that got her to say yes.

         They got married, Betty moved to New York, and was quite grateful when 4 years later Password was moved from New York to Hollywood.

         And they had, what everyone who knew them said, was a remarkable love-affair until Allen died in 1981.

         I cannot imagine how difficult that must have been for Allen. To hear “No” repeatedly, and to keep asking because he knew she was the one he wanted to spend his life with.

         It seems as though it was difficult for Betty as well, because until her death last week, Betty talked about how she wished she could have that year back, the year she says she wasted being uncertain and saying no.

         And while Allen probably would have liked that time as well, I doubt he would say it was wasted time, rather I imagine he would say it was time spent with great expectation and excitement for the moment she would say yes.

         Expectation is a profoundly human emotion, I think. It’s one where we don’t know exactly what to do or when to do it. This is not to be confused with those times when we know what is expected of us, or even what is expected of others, and are trying to meet those expectations.

         I’m talking about waiting for the line to turn pink or not on a covid or pregnancy test. Allen waiting to hear if this time is the time Betty will say yes. Waiting to hear if you got into your dream college. Waiting to hear if surgery for a loved one went well. Waiting to hear what the biopsy results are.

         It’s the anxiety producing expectation that I find to be so profoundly human.

         And it is that anxiety producing expectation that is at play in the Gospel reading today that I would like to talk about.

         Let’s set the scene, briefly.

         Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures we have these moments of God breaking in, sending someone to help in times of great need, often those are Jewish people, but not always.

         The Prophets are easy to identify, they usually say “Here I am” when God calls.

         But there are also all of the Judges who were lifted up to help the Jewish people, including Sampson. And then there are the ones we don’t know much about, like Jael (of driving a tent peg through a ruthless general’s head), and even Cyrus the Great of Persia who conquered Babylon and liberated the Jewish people from captivity.

         Scripture tells us God sends these people. And there’s an expectation that God will send someone again, and soon. Because, Israel has been occupied and ruled by the Romans since 63 BCE.

         The occupation was not a welcome one. There were constant clashes and fights. There was repression and heavy taxation. It was an unhappy and unwanted union.

         The Jewish people, with a legacy of judges, or messiahs – meaning someone sent by God – were anxiously expecting the arrival of this savior who would free them from the Roman tyranny.

         And I have to tell you, the Lion of a Man that was John the Baptist, kind of fit the bill.

         He was weird, like, really weird. He dressed funny. He had a strange diet. He was essentially homeless by choice. He spoke loudly and looked like the kind of guy you would want on your side in a bar fight.

         He was passionate and boisterous. He was utterly dedicated to God and to helping free others from the bondage of sin.

         He was probably what the people were looking for to be the messiah who would save them from the Romans.

         And John, to his credit, was like, no. The one who is to come is so much more than me. So much stronger than me. The one to come, that will be who saves you!

         I think, though I wasn’t there, that as Jesus emerged from the water as John baptizes him, and the heavens break open, the Holy Spirit descends and God’s voices says “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” I think, when that happens, the people are expecting Jesus to be Zeus, or Thor. Ok, probably they weren’t expecting a Roman or Greek God. But someone who fit that bill. Someone who would wipe out the Romans with strength and military might to set them free.

         And instead they got, Jesus.

         And he was not what they were expecting.

         Put as simply as I can, they wanted Jim Brown, the imposing, strong, leader, and amazing athlete, they got John Lewis, the smart, measured, charismatic, politician, peaceful revolutionary with a passion for justice.

         Jesus wasn’t even what John was expecting. In fact, in a few chapters we know that John is having second thoughts about Jesus because he sends word to Jesus to ask if he is the one they are waiting for, or if they should expect another.

         In Christianity there’s talk about Jesus being counter cultural, and a radical revolutionary. And he was all of that. But he was all of that in a way that was in an of itself, counter cultural and radically revolutionary.

         God came to earth not with what humans expected power and might to look like, but instead, as an infant, totally dependent on others, who grew into a man that today would likely be dismissed as a pacifist, socialist, hippie.

         John the Baptist, to be fair, would be institutionalized. Jesus probably would be too.

         Over the centuries the image of both of these men have been broken down and reformed into more palatable things; their personalities, their ministries, even their looks have been completely white-washed to make them more palatable and easier to follow.

John’s role has also been diminished, and he himself has been dismissed to the fringes of Christianity’s origin story.

         It’s hard to be the one who paves the way! If we go back briefly to Betty White, she was a pioneer and groundbreaking woman. She did SNL a few years ago with a cast of women who have been able get where they have because of the work Betty did to pave the way.

         I myself stand in the shadow of the Philadelphia 11, of the Bailey Whitbecks and Linda Grenz’s (and I know you all don’t know Linda, but she was my boss in Rhode Island and in the second group of women ordained, the Philadelphia 11 were the first, and Linda was ordained next to  Pauli Murray who we now understand was the first trans person ordained, and also a civil rights pioneer who gave Thurgood Marshall the legal idea that ended up winning Brown v. Board of Education but got no recognition).

         I walk in their footprints. And they had to work SO HARD to be able to leave footprints at all.

         John the Baptist worked really hard. He was adamant. He was murdered, by the state, before Jesus. His execution burried in a story about a King’s greed. When in reality, he didn’t just speak truth to power, he screamed truth to power and demanded to be heard. Even though he knew, HE KNEW it would cost him his life.

         And Jesus. That brown skinned, kind man, who hung out with those who were absolutely marginalized by society. He hung out with the sick, the poor, criminals, and those who were deemed unclean or unworthy by society.

         He healed people that most people wouldn’t go near, even doctors. He listened to them. Made them feel human and worthy. Even over the objection of his own disciples.

         His revolution didn’t have weapons or military power. His revolution was to say “this is not the way of God. Follow me! Be kind and care for one another. Don’t horde wealth at the expense of your neighbor in need. Certainly don’t exploit your neighbor for financial gain. Care for one another as you care for yourself. Love God, love yourself, love each other.”

         His revolution was not what was expected.

         His revolution, it turns out, was not particularly welcome.

         In order to gain acceptance, in order to meet expectations, over time his revolution was changed. And now stands as something akin to “Jesus loves you, no matter what”, and that’s it.

         Leaving God, anxious with expectation for when creation will come around to live the way God intended.

         There’s this human quality of expecting things to be and work out the way we want them too. But this puts us in the place of God. It puts our will, our wants, our expectations onto God.

         But the thing is, we aren’t God. And until we are willing to live like we believe that we aren’t God, we’ll never change. Because our expectations will remain as though God will come around to our way of thinking.

But God won’t. We have to be the ones to change. We have to be the ones to be different.

         We have to be the ones who love, who act out of love, who embrace opportunities to grow and change, to repair broken relationships. We have to do it. On earth. Now. We have to stop demanding that we are right and that everyone else come around to our way of thinking.

         All of our ways of thinking are wrong.

         All of our expectations are wrong.

         All of us are really lucky that God, much like Allen Ludden, is remarkably patient and certain that we will come around.

         Because God keeps asking, and sending different people, gifts, ideas. It is up to us to get out of our own way and say yes.

         Betty White regretted till the day she died the year she didn’t spend loving her husband.

         Before she died Betty said that when she gets to heaven she expected Jesus or Peter, whoever answered the gate when she got there to say “heeeeeerrrrrreeeeee’ssssss Allen!”

         And she lived the rest of her days in expectation of that moment.

         This week, I invite all of us to consider what are the things, where are the places, where we are putting our expectations on others, and on God? Perhaps around Covid related behaviors. Maybe we can notice this while we watch the news or scroll on social media.

         All of us do this. All of us put our expectations on others and on God.

         How is God failing to meet our expectations? How are we failing to meet God’s?

         And what can we do to change our answer when God asks us to take God’s hand and walk together through this life?

Amen

Advent 4: Philia

         I love it when a story is told so vividly that you can see it playing in your head like a movie. Most of what’s in the Bible was written to do exactly that, to paint a picture that you could follow along with, almost like you were watching it happen.

         Well, maybe I’m embellishing a bit in my head for what’s in the text. But in my head Mary arrives at Elizabeth’s door. Elizabeth greets Mary, and the two women exchange a joyful hug. Both knowing for the first time that the other is pregnant.

         Elizabeth, we need to remember is about 7 months pregnant, but she is also older. She has been shamed and made an outcast in her society for not being able to have children. The child she is about to bring into the world, John, was a child of her advanced age, a miracle. Because of that, she didn’t let it be known she was pregnant.

         Mary, upon seeing Elizabeth, also sees that she is pregnant.

         But Mary, Mary is very newly pregnant. She isn’t even showing yet.

         Elizabeth knows immediately that Mary is pregnant.

         How?

         Well, I think there are two things at play here, the first is that John gets really excited to see Mary, this, we are told, is why Elizabeth knows.

         But I think it’s more than that.

         I think what’s unnamed in the Gospel of Luke, but very present, is our fourth Greek word for love, and where we will finish our Advent journey, philia.

         It’s possible that philia is the most relatable and also the hardest to define type of love. The simple definition is friendship. But Philia, philia is so much more than friendship. Brotherly love, the namesake of Philadelphia. A bond of friendship that’s more than the run of the mill person we have lunch with occasionally.

         It’s a person who knows without knowing. A person who can look at you and know there’s something more there, good or bad.

         In the Celtic tradition philia is the Anam Cara, the soul friend. In English it’s your bestie or your best friend. It can be a sibling, a child, a lover. Or philia can apply to none of those. The slang for it these days is your “ride or die”, the people or person you can call, no matter what, who knows you better than you know yourself.

Last week John so beautifully spoke about agape, divine love, God’s love for us. For me, the closest I will ever come to being able to experience that love is when I am with those I share phila with.

         In May, I had a socially distanced lunch with 4 of those people, all at once. We laughed and cried. We shared updates and hopes. And we all left feeling loved and fulfilled, rejuvenated for the next few uncertain days and months ahead. This moment made even sweeter by the time and distance between our times together, because of geography and covid.

         The same relationship is true, I believe, of Mary and Elizabeth.

         When I watch the story of Elizabeth and Mary greeting, as their joy at an unspoken truth is expressed through hugs and laughter and happy tears, when I see this in my mind, I see philia.

         And! It is within the safety of being with her soul friend that Mary says:

         My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for God has looked with favor on the lowliness of God’s servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is God’s name.
         God’s mercy is for those who fear God from generation to generation.

God has shown strength with God’s arm; and scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.

God has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.
         God has helped Israel, in remembrance of God’s mercy, according to the promise made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.

         The Magnificat. Stunningly beautiful. Hauntingly faithful. Unabashed in strength.

         Mary spoke these words to a true friend, with whom she shares philia. And also to another woman who is shamed by society – and make no mistake, once Mary returns home in 3 months, noticeably pregnant, she will be shamed by society. And she knows this. She knew this when Gabriel invited her to carry, birth, and raise God in human form.

         And with this shame looming, still she says, God has looked with favor upon me. God will scatter the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. God is lifting the lowly, and bringing down the rich.

         In addition to being with Elizabeth and that experience of philia, truly looking at the words of the Magnificat, taking them in to our hearts, it’s clear that Mary has a philia relationship with God as well.

         A relationship where you know one another, you see all the flaws, all the wonder, all the beauty, and those things only make you love one another more.

         To have that with God!

         The thing is, we all do. Or at least, we all can. We can all nurture and grow in our relationship with God. This is a huge part of Christianity to me. Christianity is in part, to me, a way to grow in and nurture a relationship with God.

         It’s a way that over time has been whittled away into a much smaller approach to relationship with God that what Christ intended.

         In these last weeks of Advent we’ve seen that the role of women, and even of those who are just somehow deemed less than, have been intentionally marginalized. Along with those marginalized people went the approaches to faith that they offered.

         Mary Magdalene had a myth created about her that she was a sex worker. Mary Mother of God was treated as a God bearer and then nothing else is said about her.

         But I thought of something yesterday, as I listened to the Magnificat being sung at my friend Rowan’s ordination: Mary didn’t just say those words to Elizabeth.

         Using our brains for a moment, realistically, neither of them could read or write. There isn’t a scribe who is following Mary around, and no one else is listed as being with them. And if a man had been there, even Elizabeth’s husband, Zechariah; if a man had been there he would be named.

         What this tells me is that Mary didn’t say these words once. I bet she said them a lot.

         I think she said them to her followers in the communities she was part of and perhaps helped created. I think she said them to Jesus and He made sure her words were repeated and remembered as her’s.

         I know this because! Because these words of the Magnificat, they are a summary of Christ’s teachings!

         Let your soul, your existence, your very being, magnify God! Rejoice in God, be humbled in God. Use your relationship with God to strengthen you to do God’s work! To upend unjust systems, cast down those who have profited unjustly, and use their ill-gotten wealth to lift up the poor, while simultaneously scattering away those who think themselves better than others.

         Mary said these words, offered these teachings. She didn’t just give birth to Christ and go away to the side meekly.

         She was fierce, she taught fiercely, she loved fiercely. And she was supported in her fierce love by her philia relationship, her deep and life-giving friendship, with God.

For all of us, myself included, the Advent journey has been one of seeing and appreciating love. Love in all it’s forms, not just the romantic type that’s most celebrated. Love, like faith, is more than one narrow thing.

Love, like faith, gives back as much as we put into it.

Love, like faith, is something to be nurtured and respected. And if we put in the effort, we will reap incredible returns!

Love, like faith, needs to be a two way street, where both parties are contributing to the give and take, the carry and the be carried, the speak and the listen. That is true in healthy relationships of all kinds, including your relationship with God.

Now that we have considered love, I invite all of us to consider the ways in which we show our love to God; our love of God.

So please, in these last few days before Christmas, as we sit with Mary and anxiously await the birth of Christ, find a moment, or take a moment, or make a moment, to sit and consider love. The Great loves in your life. And your love with and of God.

How does your love of God play out on a day-to-day basis?

What do you need to feel competent and able to grow in your relationship with God?

Amen

On Eros and Mary of Magdala

         So. I have a confession. A confession that starts 4 Christmases ago. I was working at a Church in Northern Virginia as their curate before I moved to Rhode Island to join the Bishop’s staff there.

       The Christmas season can be a lot for Clergy. That particular Christmas season had a lot of tribulations, and by the second week of Advent, I was exhausted.

       I was sitting on the couch of the tiny basement apartment I was renting, flipping through tv channels, when a familiar face appeared on the screen.

       Now, I could not tell you who that face belonged to, only that I stopped long enough to think of where I knew this person from, and suddenly realized that I was watching a Hallmark Christmas movie. And that I had been watching it for like 15 minutes.

       I had never done this before. I had never watched a Hallmark Christmas movie. But I was exhausted, there was a familiar face, I left it on.

       My confession, is that I like Hallmark Christmas movies.

       I’m not exactly proud of this, but I’m also not ashamed of this. Plenty of people like the cheesy, predictable, warm natured films. Especially in stressful times – like the holidays.

       There’s actually been some studies about why we are drawn to this genre of films, and it seems that in times of high stress and unpredictability, which summed up the holidays pretty well even before Covid, our brains like the predictability and the certainty.

       We like knowing that the Price will choose the waitress over the heiress. And sure, there’s no way that the big city lawyer and the small-town florist can actually make a relationship work, but we’re all still cheering when he proposes after 6 days anyway!

       I have not conducted research on this myself, but I also have a theory about why so many of us enjoy Hallmark style Christmas Movies, or can at least tolerate them: we love, love.

       Love, is what makes the world go round. Love is what we hear in so many songs, it’s what Hallmark figured out a format for that makes into over the top movies with bad acting be enjoyable.

       As we began to discuss last week, Love, the word love, has been consolidated in English from several different words in Greek. This week we turn our attention to the love that makes the world go round, that keeps us up at night, that Hallmark has made a fortune selling: Eros.

       Eros is the root word that erotic comes from. It means a passionate love, a sensual love, that all encompassing form of insanity, as the Greeks considered it. A form of insanity, I should point out, that was not something to base a decision as important as who to marry upon in the Ancient Greek world.

       Plato considered Eros to be life energy, not just a carnal passion. The thing that gives life purpose, direction, meaning.

       It is Eros that we linger upon this week.

       Eros, is an interesting thing to preach upon. And in looking at the Mary’s that have been passed down to us from Scripture and Tradition, there is no one more perfect, in my mind, to use to illustrate Eros, than Mary of Magdala, or Mary Magdalene.

       Because, through no fault of her own, and based on an inaccurate reading of Scripture, Mary Magdalene has been cast as a lustful, unable to control herself, sex worker, and possibly adulterous woman of low morals who was healed by Jesus and became a follower.

       This idea that Mary Magdalene was a sex worker came from the way that Pope Gregory the first read Scripture in 591. He conflated an unnamed “sinful” woman who anointed Christ’s feet with Mary of Magdala, who was a prosperous woman, remembered as having had flaming red hair, and who was so important in Jesus’s ministry that she is the one who was chosen for Christ to first reveal himself to in his resurrected form.

Mary of Magdala was the apostle to the apostles, the one who was so important in Christ’s ministry and in the efforts immediately following his death, that she is widely believed to have had to escape to what is now France in order to escape being murdered.

Instead of being lauded, Mary was intentionally diminished as part of a larger goal to diminish the importance of, and role for, women within Christianity. So a narrative was invented about Mary, one that discredited her completely, and she was used, along with Mary Mother of God, to create a binary in society that allowed women only to be vessels for having children, or sex workers.

This narrative about Mary Magdalene is still widely believed, although the Catholic Church did, in 1961, say that Pope Gregory was incorrect in his assessment of Mary. And in 2016, Pope Francis moved her liturgical day, July 22, from a celebration, which means it’s optional to celebrate, to a feast, which means you must celebrate her when July 22 falls on a Sunday.

Though Mary Magdalene has been vindicated, 1,400 years after she was so thoroughly slandered, the narrative about her hasn’t really changed in the last 50 years. She’s still considered to be a reformed sex worker, and not venerated as the Apostle to the Apostles. Her Gospel is still dismissed, as are the Gospels of Peter and Thomas, in addition to several other ancient texts, all of which show that Mary was remarkably important to the Ministry of Christ.

But even in what we have in Scripture, we can see that Mary and Jesus shared a special bond. A bond that goes beyond Rabbi and follower. I can’t say exactly what their relationship was, because I wasn’t there, but they shared a special connection. One that made Jesus ask Mary not to cling to him, not to bind him to earth, when he returned.

It may not be a physically passionate love that they shared, but it’s clear that Eros is a term that would apply more than the other forms of love we can wrap our human minds easily around.

So how then was Mary Magdalene so easily confused and dismissed?

In researching this sermon I came across one tidbit that I think summarizes a lot of where all this confusion comes from. Mary, as it turns out, was BY FAR the most common name for women in first century Israel. There are a lot of Mary’s floating about and playing roles within Jesus’s ministry. Several of the women with roles that were important enough to be mentioned in Scripture were named Mary, Magdalene, Mother Mary, Mary and Martha, Mary of Bethany. And there were unnamed women who’s stories appeared near stories of these various Mary’s.

The sheer number of Mary’s was used to conflate Mary Magdalene with several other women, and that conflated person was the one who was used to suppress women, and to try to create a fear and a stigma around women and Eros.

Really, everyone and eros.

A stigma was created around being passionate at all. Sex was made to be an evil thing outside of when it was for the specific purpose of procreation and within a heterosexual marriage. For example, to this day, Catholic doctrine says that sex can only happen within a marriage, and that it is purely for procreation. No other reason. Any other incident of sex is a sin.

This, comes from Augustine’s creation of the doctrine of Original Sin, which is complicated, but basically, lust and sex for pleasure are the original sins committed by Adam in the Garden of Eden (but not Eve) after eating the fruit of all knowledge.

Since lust is the original sin, fathers, whom we remember from last week were understood to be the only one’s who had anything to do with children – women were just incubators for their seeds – fathers commit the sin of lust in any sexual encounter, and therefore their children are born with original sin. This is why Jesus was not born with original sin, because his father is the Holy Spirit and not a human.

I know, it’s a lot. Deep breath!

Eros, was taken from being a life giving force, a beautiful thing that gives life purpose, often in conjunction with Agape love. It went from a beautiful life giving thing, to sinful and to be avoided at all costs. With the limited exception of for procreation within a heterosexual marriage.

Eros became much smaller, limited to lust and desire, instead of a genuine passion, and potentially a beautiful, life giving love, that was not limited to carnal matters.

Mary Magdalene, went from being a loving and beloved companion of Christ, to a lust driven sex worker, and with her, went the larger understanding of eros, and of what love can be when healthy and allowed to bloom.

Last week, I invited everyone to consider storge love, and those relationships within their family that are healthy and life giving. This week, I invite everyone to consider, in any quiet moments, if there are relationships you have, or have had, that are places where you have a life giving love. This is the place to think of our romantic relationships, but also other passions.

Eros, like Storge, like Philia to come in our discussions, and Agape, these are the loves that we feel when they are absent. These are the loves that we long for as humans, at least that most people long for.

What I invite everyone to do is to think of those places where we have these great loves. And to give thanks for them.

Great love is what Hallmark is trying to sell. But in reality, a great love is a relationship that is worth the work. Because all love is work. Family, friends, lovers, sports teams, and pets. It’s all work.

What are the relationships in your life that are worth the work? Take a moment this week to give thanks for those places.

Amen

Mary, Mother of God, and Storge (familial love)

When I was in my first year of law school, so I think I was somewhere around 26, the young son of a friend of mine got sick. He was somewhere around 6 at the time. Our rural doctors couldn’t figure out what was going on and sent them to Baltimore to see pediatric specialists. My friend, Shane, called when I was headed back to Maryland for Christmas to let me know the specialists had diagnosed a highly aggressive form of leukemia. They were going to do a few more test to figure out the best course of action. But they were 99.6% sure it was bad.

When I got home I called our next door neighbor, Mary Lou, a devout Catholic, to see if I could go to church with her that night; she of course enthusiastically said yes. I didn’t know what I could do to help my friend, but I wanted to do something, church seemed like a good place to start.

As I explained the situation to Mary Lou she suggested I light a candle to Mary, because Mary always loves and protects her children.

I had never lit a candle to anyone. I wasn’t exactly a heathen, but I was definitely NOT a Catholic. I didn’t know what to say or how to do it, but I put the money that Mary Lou gave me in the little slot and I lit a candle, and prayed for a miracle.

As I was driving back to Georgia (where I was in school) the call came from Shane that the highly aggressive leukemia, was actually an exceptionally rare but curable condition, when caught early. And one of the very few specialists in the United States happened to be in Philadelphia, a mere 3 hours away.

It was an actual miracle. I could feel it. Shane still considers it to have been a miracle that saved Caleb.

And that was when I decided to go back to church. Maybe there was something to this “God thing” after all. The friend I was driving back to Georgia with happened to have recently started going to an Evangelical Church, and he was getting something out of it. He invited me without my even bringing this up.

And here we are, 14 years later. That little boy has graduated high school and can now legally drink; I’m an Episcopal Priest, still not Catholic, Shane and I have drifted apart because of ideological differences but talked this week, actually, and I’m still an ardent fan of Mother Mary.

As we begin Advent this year, an Advent where we are taking an intentional, and different, approach, I can think of no better way to begin than by beginning with Mary, and the way that she shows us familial love, specifically the love of parent and child.

It’s important to pause for a moment to acknowledge that not everyone is able to experience the love of a parent or of being a parent. I myself don’t have children and was rejected by a parent (though, those two things are actually unrelated). The harm of rejection by a parent is real. And nothing I offer today, I hope, will hurt wounds that some of us carry.

Rather, this look at the love of parent and child comes from our attempt in these next few weeks to take a deeper look at the word “love.”

Because, what is encompassed in the word love in English, actually means several different things in Greek. To begin this season of Advent, we look at storge (store-gay), or familial love.

Perhaps some might consider agape, or the way that God loves humans, for the way a parent loves a child. But honestly, that’s outside of my experience. I’ve witnessed the love of other things come between parent and child, as I’m sure you all have as well. Addiction, money, tradition, politics, religion, youth, mistakes, you name it. And while these things can come between parent and child, they don’t come between God and human.

So we’re starting with the birth of the love humans can experience, storge, and Mary, Mother of God.

The way that Mary is so often depicted, virginal, innocent, naïve to what she was being asked to do, and then fading into oblivion, I’ve always struggled with that.

Mary was so committed to God, by God’s own standards, that God offered Mary the opportunity to bring Christ into the world. Mary was chosen, and was bold enough to say yes, to what was honestly a remarkably difficult call.

Let’s remember that Mary was quite young. Her betrothal would have been arranged shortly after her period started, anywhere between 12 and 15. She would have been married shortly thereafter. Some women did marry later, but usually only if they were previously in a religious life or from an upper class family.

So it’s more than likely that Mary was between 14 and 16 when she became pregnant with Jesus.

I, am not going to comment on the immaculate conception nor on the idea of Mary being and continuing to be the Virgin Mary, other than to say, the idea of Mary continuing to be the Virgin Mary after Christ was born started in the early 300’s, and was developed by a group of men who wanted to create a standard for women to hold themselves to, and in the process created an impossible standard, one that limits women to being vessels for procreation.

Also important to note is that at the time it was understood that the woman played no role in the genetics of the child. A woman was simply implanted with a man’s seed and grew his child. She played no role other than oven and delivery system. This is why the immaculate conception is far more difficult and controversial today than it was in the early church.

Just pointing those things out for you to chew on. Honestly, I wouldn’t put it past God for an Immaculate conception to be possible, and it really doesn’t impact my belief in God one way or another if Jesus was born of Mary and the Spirit, or Mary and Joseph with a blessing of the Spirit. However, if any of this does impact your belief in God, please talk with me!

Back to Mary, the one chosen to bring forth the chosen one.

Mary was a teenager, quite possibly rebellious by human standards, but perfect by God’s standards. More than likely she wasn’t from a wealthy family. She had dark skin, dark hair, dark eyes. And apparently she loved the color blue.

At this time of year I imagine her super pregnant, scared about becoming a parent, confused as to how to be a parent, very confused about the line to walk between letting her child grow and be a regular child with chores and friends, and also knowing that she’s carrying a son who will be remarkable.

I imagine her exhausted after having given birth, and wrapping her newborn baby boy in her blue shawl, holding him, and looking down into the eyes of her infant.

That look, that moment, that’s the love I wish to linger with today. Storge, familial love, it’s the love that exists because of a bond, a bond that goes beyond anything we can genuinely articulate. It’s a love that’s pure and innocent. A love that exists because it exists. And something to be cherished and held carefully.

It’s also the love that’s easiest to manipulate. It’s the love that hurts the deepest when it is manipulated.

It’s the love that can make a woman take on the form of a bear or a lion when someone threatens her cub.

It’s the love that’s easiest to take for granted. One of the hardest to mend.

And the absence of this love leaves a chasm. One that often we seek to fill with other things, and in other ways.

This is the love that keeps therapists employed, and also the love that made so many hugs so sweet after months of separation.

Within storge is also the love between siblings, cousins, grandparents, even aunts, uncles, nieces and nephews.

It’s a love that should, and often does, bond people together. It’s a love that feeds the desire to foster a relationship between people who are remarkably different, even when there is a proven history of hurt.

This love is seen in the story of Mary and Martha, where one sister works and the other sits at the feet of God. Was Martha upset that Mary was sitting at the feet of Christ rather than helping her, yes. But also, Martha wouldn’t have taken away that opportunity from her sister.

It’s a love that God honored in stopping Abraham’s knife from plunging into Isaac. It’s also the love that Abraham broke in that action, leaving Isaac and Rebecca to never speak to him again.

It’s a love that brought Esau and Jacob back together after Jacob manipulated and hurt Esau.

It’s the love that reunited Jacob’s sons after Joseph had been sold into slavery; the love that called to Jacob to forgive his brothers and save them when faced with famine.

Love is complex, multifaceted, impossible to control, nearly impossible to explain. That gets even more complicated when looking at families. Where for most of us, our most complex relationships can be found.

As we look at this love in Advent, I think it’s important to look at our own lives and our own families. We are beginning a journey this week, a journey that ends with baby Jesus wrapped in his mother’s blue shawl.

As a young woman prepares her life and her heart for motherhood, we are also preparing our hearts and lives for a renewed welcome of God into our lives, hearts, and homes.

I hope, sincerely, that those who are listening to this sermon today don’t need a miracle to be dropped into their world in order to see the need to make room for God in their lives. I did, and I own that.

Our invitation to consider this week is that as we are going through our days and find ourselves with a few moments to think, commuting, walking the dog, showering, knitting, let’s consider where there are spaces that we can make room for God in our lives, this is Advent, after all. We’re preparing. And let’s also take a look to see if there are healthy and loving storge relationships in our lives. And if so, take a moment to give thanks for that love.

       And let us all do our best to live into the first line of the Magnificat: My soul magnifies the lord.

       How can we alight our souls to magnify the lord?

Amen

Christ the King and White Supremacy

         As some of you have noticed, I can be a bit stubborn and quirky as a clergy person. There are a lot of reasons for this that I don’t need to go into right now. But one thing I will almost always do is explain my rationale for some belief or practice when asked. Now, there is always a chance that my answer is “I don’t know; I never thought about it. That’s just how I’ve always done it or how I learned to do it.” This happens a surprising amount when I’m asked about the traditions of the Episcopal Church.

         A few years ago I realized that there was a tradition that I, and most of the Episcopal Clergy I know do every week, and very few of us know why we do it:

         Why we all wear white at the Altar.

         Now, you might have noticed that I don’t wear white at the Altar. And even when I do, my alb is flax, not white. The Bishop, on his visit honored my preferences and wore flax instead of white.

         I don’t wear white because when I realized I didn’t know why we wear white at the Altar, I did some research.

         And the answer sent shivers up my spine.

         Purity. Because white means pure.

         We wear white to show how pure we are; and that we are clean. Because white is the color associated with goodness, with cleanness, with purity. It has been for centuries, perhaps millennia, beginning when the ruling elite had the paler skin from being inside, and those who worked had darker skin from being in the sun.

         That we wear white to show purity is nearly undisputed. It started long ago.  Christians started wearing white because it was what the Romans wore to symbolize citizenship, and the brighter white the toga was, the more important the person wearing it. The wealthiest Romans actually had their enslaved people color their togas with white chalk, to make them even brighter.

Clerics didn’t start wearing white right away, but slowly evolved into wearing white beginning in the Eastern Churches around the 6th Century did so to show they were pure enough to administer the sacraments. In 1566, white became the official color worn by Popes, to show how pure they are.

         In and of itself, this maybe isn’t a problem to everyone. Certainly not to those of us who are white. But when we look into the history of how and when white became lauded what we find is a history of making sure that some are seen as better than others and using white to do so. To show wealth, to show that you don’t work in the sun. To show that you can afford the most expensive cloth.

         The Pope, in 1556, started wearing white to show purity somewhere around 50 years after enslaved Africans started arriving in Europe. Also at that time there was a shift in how good and evil was portrayed in art and theater. Suddenly white was good and black was evil. And this is when the Pope made it official to wear white at the Altar to show purity.

         Since I learned this, which was between when I was ordained a Deacon in November of 2016 and when I became a priest in June of 2017, I have not worn a white alb. I will not wear one again. I did not wear white at my own ordination.

         Maybe the association of white with purity doesn’t bother you. But it bothers me. A lot. Cotton, for those who have never seen it in person, isn’t bright white; it’s a yellow-ish off white. The white that we think of as white in fabric is caused by bleach and a bit of blue dye – that’s why white clothes fade to yellow over time.

There are many hundreds of year years of tradition behind wearing white to show how pure we are. But the white has actually gotten whiter and whiter over the last two hundred years. Especially since the 1800’s. Literally. This is when bleach was invented and became widely available for textiles.

But this tradition of brighter white being better is grounded in the belief of the supremacy of things that are white over those things that are color. Maybe that wasn’t understood long ago, or at least not cared about, but we care now. I certainly care now.

I know a lot of good priests and deacons, good Godly people, who believe they are honoring a tradition by wearing white at the Altar. And they are. But it bothers me no end that they are holding a tradition of the church as more important than breaking a tradition that is grounded in white supremacy.

         Now why, you may be wondering, on Christ the King Sunday, on Ingathering Sunday, am I preaching on upending several hundred years of tradition in the church.

         Well, that’s kind of my style.

         And also, this Gospel, this one, is Jesus looking at the most powerful person in Israel by human standards and saying “your ‘power’ is nothing. Your sense of being better than me, isn’t true. Your understanding of how the world works, how power works, is wrong. Your chalked white toga doesn’t mean you are better than me in my dirty, non-white cloak.”

         The truth, Christ says. The Truth is the power.

         The truth, my friends, is that there is no such thing as race. It’s a social construct. We are all descended from Africans, it’s just that some of our ancestors left earlier than others.

Modern American racism, as we know it, was actually created in large part by the Episcopal Church in Virginia (with a little help from the Catholics in Maryland, and the Anglicans throughout the colonies). Because it was the vestries of the local parishes at that time who made and enforced laws.

The church was complicit in creating American racism with 3 changes to law and Christianity as it had been passed down.

First, up until the buying and selling of human beings became the major world industry, being a Christian, even converting to Christianity, meant that a person could no longer be enslaved. This created a major problem in the American Colonies where enslaved people of all skin tones appreciated the message of Christ. A few people converted to Christianity and then sued for their freedom. And at first, they won. So the local clergy, vestries and Bishops changed the law, and this was approved by the Arch Bishop of Canterbury, they changed the laws so that being a Christian did not mean you were entitled to freedom.

         Then, vestries decided that it needed to be illegal for people with different color skin to marry, have children, or even to talk to one another. Now, they “had to do this” because the white indentured servants were talking to the enslaved people of color, and they were joining forces to revolt. And the landowners, which would have included all of the men of the vestry, well they couldn’t lose their property to revolt. So the Bishops again changed canon laws. And the legislatures followed suit.

         So it became illegal for people of different skin colors to talk, to marry, to have children; and a social hierarchy was codified into law to give whites, even those who were enslaved, more rights than people of color. Again, all changes in law were approved by local clergy and vestries.

         [trigger warning: I’m now going to mention sexual assault]

         And then, a new problem emerged, in that the white male enslavers were raping enslaved women of color. Now the problem to be dealt with wasn’t that men were raping enslaved women, which was against many laws at the time, no, the problem was that those women were getting pregnant.

         At the time, property, title, status as slave or free, even your religion, was passed down through the father. Well, this was of course a problem, so a solution was created and the local churches enthusiastically signed off on a new law, which changed THOUSANDS of years of tradition, to make it that the rights of a child were the same as the rights of the Mother. Again, these changes were approved by the Bishops and then codified into law.

         These three laws, acts of overt racism and white supremacy, were created and endorsed and codified by churches throughout the “New World.” All while clergy were standing at the Altar wearing white to show how pure they were.

         If you are curious about learning more, I highly recommend the book “Baptism of Early Virginia” by Dr. Rebecca Ann Goetz, who is now a professor at NYU and a national Endowment for the Humanities Fellow.

         This is what I learned about when I went down the rabbit hole of “why do we wear white at the altar.”

And that is why I stopped wearing white at the altar. I want to break my participation in the cycle of white supremacy, and, I never want a person of color to walk into this church and see a clergy person who is willing to wear outward sign of white supremacy. I stopped wearing even this flax alb because I know it’s difficult to see the color differences through a camera, because this is close to the color that was originally worn to show purity, and because I’m still working through all of this. I’d rather not wear it. But I understand the value of tradition and I’m trying to find a compromise. I just don’t want anyone to think this is a place that promotes white supremacy, ever.

         Now, I know that not everyone feels as urgently or as passionately about dismantling white supremacy as I do. I’m sure there are several people in this very room who disagree with me on struggling with white representing purity.

         But, this is, without question, an issue that God has called me to.

         It influences how I lead this church, and not just in how I dress or what I preach on.

         Breaking the cycles and patterns of white supremacy influences how I lead this church because I intentionally try to lead in a way that goes against the power structures as they have been passed down in society and the church. I literally give my power away in situations where it is appropriate to do so. I try to lead in a way that invites you all to give of your passions and energies.

         In here we invite everyone to give of your treasure while outside those red doors, society says you should hoard your wealth, keep it for yourself, rather than giving it away. That treasure includes money, passion, time, energy, ideas.

         Society has made us consumers of goods and services and this has led to the commodification and capitalism-ization of the church. Where it seems as though we can just go to church once a month, get what we want, ignore or criticize what we don’t like, and then go home after dropping a $20 in the plate, and feel good about doing God’s work and getting into heaven.

         I’m not the gatekeeper for who gets into heaven or not, so I don’t know if that’s enough to get into heaven. But I have to tell you, I really don’t think getting into heaven is the main point of the Gospel nor of church.

         The Gospel offers us a way to live, now, here, today.

The Gospel invites us to live into the fullness of who God created us to be. And, to help others live into the fullness of who God created them to be.

I laid my heart, my soul, all of my love, on the Altar before God, and God placed this call on my heart.

My call is to leave this world with less white supremacy than it had when I entered this world. And in this week, this week where a white man has once again been acquitted of murder after he, looking for trouble, took a weapon of war to a protest for police shooting another unarmed black man; a protest he wasn’t welcome to nor needed to be at, while carrying a semi-automatic weapon not registered to him, and murdering 2 people after he was surprised that people took offense to having an AR-15 pointed at them. This week shows me that I have a lot of work to do to make even the slightest difference.

And if you don’t think Christianity is in anyway involved in the news out of Wisconsin, and the white supremist who now walks free, his defense fund was hosted on a Christian site designed to fund missionaries, GiveSendGo. Which means that some Christians think Kyle Rittenhouse was doing the work of Christ.

This makes my blood boil. And I believe it should ignite a flame within us all to stand up to the systems that have so viciously corrupted the word of God, exactly as Christ did in this Gospel reading!

This week, as we pause to celebrate Thanksgiving, I invite everyone to continue considering what we would lay on the altar before God. And, as we prepare to enter a season of Advent, as we celebrate Thanksgiving, a holiday that has a true history that differs greatly from what we have traditionally been led to believe, I ask us to further consider what are we called to lay at the foot of the cross, to die and resurrect as something new and powerful?

Because there are many traditions that have been passed down to us, wearing white, or even promoting purity at all, even the myth of Thanksgiving and that this land we stand on was “discovered” when white people landed on it’s shores. The myth of Thanksgiving that ignores the genocide that happened on the very ground we are on.

What traditions in our lives have we participated in, do we participate in, that need to be looked at anew and maybe changed a bit?

This is hard work, and it should uncover some uncomfortable truths. But do not be afraid of the Truth even when it flies in the face of tradition. Because the Truth will set us all free, free from white supremacy, free from the myth that somehow some of us are better than others. When the Truth is that God loves us all, equally.

Let it be so.

Amen

What does “All Saints” mean, Saintly speaking?

         I usually have a standard procedure for sermon prep. I read the texts early in the week. Wait a day or two. Read them again, and also a commentary or two. I usually also google a few things, and fact check a few others. I don’t always go in to detail on what I’ve learned in these moments, but I usually have the background. Then I read again, and start writing.

         Every year though, every year All Saints is different. Maybe it’s because it’s an intentional time to remember the Saints in my life. Maybe it’s because this is a week, more so than any other for me, which feels like it should come from my heart.

         This year, the first time I read our Wisdom reading, I knew this sermon would be less Scripture, and more heart.

But the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, and no torment will ever touch them. In the eyes of the foolish they seemed to have died, and their departure was thought to be an affliction, and their going from us to be their destruction; but they are at peace.
For though in the sight of men they were punished, their hope is full of immortality. Having been disciplined a little, they will receive great good, because God tested them and found them worthy; like gold in the furnace God tried them, and like a sacrificial burnt offering God accepted them.
In the time of their visitation they will shine forth, and will run like sparks through the stubble.
They will govern nations and rule over peoples and the Lord will reign over them forever.
Those who trust in God will understand truth, and the faithful will abide with God in love, because grace and mercy are upon God’s elect, and God watches over God’s holy ones.

         These words, this week, were a balm for my soul. One line in particular: In the eyes of the foolish they seemed to have died, and their departure was thought to be an affliction, and their going from us to be their destruction; but they are at peace.

         I don’t know if this is true for everyone here yet, but I know for myself, I’ve lost several people, and a few pets, who I miss dearly. Every day. When I asked my Mom for pictures a few of those people, of my grandparents and my Aunt Pat to put on the virtual altar, I could actually hear my Mom laugh. Which is impressive, because this was over text.

         My Mom laughed because on earth, my Aunt Pat would probably not have been considered a Saint. I mean I would consider her a Saint. She’d calmed down a lot by the time I came around. But the stories of motorcycle rallies and some of the things she did when she was younger…

         This was more than made up for in my eyes by Pat teaching me to drive, when I was 12, and for being there for me in the difficult days that were my adolescence. By her choice, Pat was baptized on what would be her death bed, when I was 18 and she was moving into hospice. My Mom asked her if she would go back and change anything. Pat got this glint in her eye and said “no.”

Upon hearing that Pat would be baptized in hospice, my surviving Aunt, Rocky, laughed, and said Pat had done it right, being washed clean of sin when she could no longer do anything wrong!

As Pat got sicker and sicker, I would sit by her bed and read her the Psalms. She loved the 23rd the most. As a Baptism gift, the priest who drove 2 hours once a week to visit my Aunt gave her a wooden cross. Pat held that thing so close in her last days. Seeking comfort in the unknown future. And when she died, I kid you not, she took that cross with her. We all searched for that thing. It was never seen again.

         I’ve been thinking about Pat, and my Mom’s understandable laughter, and what it means to be a Saint, and what it means to be honored on All Saints day.

         Somewhere in my prep for this week I came across the idea that what All Saints celebrates are those who are now in God’s hands.

         And that, for me, is it. These Saints who are pictured here, and who we will see on the virtual Altar, these are the ones we have loved who are now in God’s hands. They are safe, they are at peace, they are comforted, they understand a truth about God that we who are alive do not.

         I don’t know what happens when we die. I don’t know what heaven is like, I don’t know if there is something specific we are supposed to do, or not do, when we’re on earth. But I’ve had the honor of being with a few people as they transition from this life to the next. And each time, every time, there is this instant of peace.

         Any fear or fighting, vanishes, and is replaced by a peace that goes beyond words or understanding.

         That moment of peace gives me so much hope that there is a heaven and that I’ll get to see Pat, and my Grandparents, and Great Aunt’s and Uncles, several good friends, and some amazing pets, again.

         Today, tomorrow, Tuesday, those are days when the veil is thin. These are days when it’s almost like we can touch them again.

         For our homework this week, I’d like us all to consider at least one of our Saints, and think of something they would want us to do.

         And if we can, do it.

         My Aunt Pat would probably have wanted me to ride a motorcycle so when I was in my early 20’s I did. And I did not like it. At all. She probably laughed at me as I got off, politely thanked the person whose bike it was, handed him my helmet, and walked instead. This week in her honor, I’ll drive too fast and maybe flip someone off. Just for her. Not because of Boston traffic.

         Maybe your Saints would like you to do something, call someone, read something, write something, stand up for something, hug someone, or pet something.

         This week, if it’s safe and you’re able, do it.

         Let’s do our part to be the type of person, to live the type of life, so that we are remembered on an altar like this one, and so that God is extending a hand to welcome us home when the time comes.

         Being in God’s hands. That’s what this day is all about. Our loved ones are there. And until we join them, we are God’s hands on earth.

         I was thinking of my Aunt Pat and my Grandmother when I got in the car this morning. About my beloved pets, Albus and Stella. I drove two feet, looked up, and saw this:

         They are with us. Always.

They are with us. Always.

Amen

The patience of a Puppy?

         I’m going to let you all in on a little preacher secret: sometimes we can’t come up with what it is that we want to preach on in any given week. There’s really no rhyme or reason for this, at least not for me. Sometimes it’s because there’s so much in the text. Sometimes it’s because there’s not a lot in the text. Sometimes they just don’t speak to you, or there’s a lot going on in the world or your world, or there’s something you really want to say or even something you really don’t want to say.

         And sometimes you have a week where life is just really distracting and it’s hard to pinpoint where to start.

         I imagine this happens in a lot of professions. Those times when there’s just so much going on that it’s hard to get started on the thing you really need, or want, to do.

         I think we all have different strategies for dealing with this.

         Mine, because I’m an extrovert with ADHD is to ask some version of the question “what sermon would you like to hear preached?” Apparently I asked this very question a year ago to my Facebook friends. I got some great responses.

         This week, I asked the person I was talking to when the thought occurred to me that I really needed to figure out what to preach on. That just so happened to be my friend Lauren, and she was ready to go with an amazing answer!

         And the sermon that Lauren would like to hear this week just so happens to be one that we all could probably benefit from hearing.

         Lauren described the desire to hear about a gentle, quiet perseverance, the perseverance of God in trying to reach us. Lauren demonstrated this with a picture of her 2-year-old goldendoodle puppy, Greta, who has been literally inching her way closer, and closer, to their 17 year old cat, Bella, who wants nothing to do with Greta.

         It has taken 2 years of hissing, and swatting, but Greta can now be withing a foot of Bella without getting swatted. And she just keeps going a tiny bit closer at a time. Allowing her to gain Bella’s trust and avoid getting her nose swatted by the occasionally cantankerous senior cat.

         Thinking about Greta slowly working towards relationship with Bella reminded me a bit of Job. That often said, but really not based in Scripture, saying about having the patience of Job.  Fortunately, we have the ending of Job in our readings today!

Thinking about Greta and Bella reminded me of when Job is sitting on the ash heap in the early pages of the Book that carries his name. His family has been killed, all of his livestock have died, his wife has turned on him, and then he was struck by painful boils from the bottoms of his feet to the top of his head.

         Job is sitting there, alone, on the margins of what is essentially the town dump, and three of his friends come and sit next to him, silently, for 7 days. Just so that he’s not suffering alone.

         And oh, oh, how I wish the friends had just sat there quietly. But instead they open their mouths. Their words, and Job’s response, and God’s response, fill chapters 3-41.

         However, the friends aren’t actually what I want to talk about today.

         I actually just want to linger with the Book of Job. All of it. And then I’ll tie it all back in to the Greta inspired persistent, patient, love.

         I’ve heard it said that these are Job-ian times. And in a lot of ways, I really agree with that sentiment.

         For so many of us these days, it feels like the rug is being constantly pulled out from under us. We’ve discovered new levels of perseverance within ourselves that honestly we never wanted to find; and for some of us, we’ve reached a point where we’ve simply run out, and have had to ask for help we never expected to need. And we’ve learned that that’s ok. It’s okay to need and ask for help. It’s okay to run out.

         Job had it all, at least on paper, and the rug was pulled out from under him. He had sons, land, livestock, slaves. All of the things that were valued and prized in his world. And then they were taken away within a few moments of each other. Not by God. But with God’s accord.

         This is a story that is retold, in different ways and for different reasons, over and over and over.

         As it turns out, the Book of Job itself is a retelling and poetic embellishment of a common folktale at the time. The first, second, and 42nd chapters of Job are that folktale.

         In the middle, the friends blaming Job, Job yelling at God, God putting Job in his place, that’s all a poetic attempt at explaining why bad things happen, and undermining the idea that tragedy is punishment of God.

         The poet challenges the idea of tragedy as punishment by saying instead that what we need to ask is why did this happen?

         The answer, the unsatisfying answer (if I say so myself) is: you are not God, and cannot understand what I do, nor why I do it.

         And that’s fair. It really is. It’s unsatisfying and humbling. But it’s fair.

         We are not God. We don’t get to understand why things happen or don’t.

         People like me make our living trying to figure out a way through the messiness of life in a way that makes sense, and allows us to have meaning in tragedy.

         It’s easier to accept a tragic event when we can assign a greater meaning to our loss.

         It’s a lot harder to understand and allow for the idea that God didn’t cause the tragedy, but that God was with us the entire time. Is with us the entire time. And sometimes, it’s through those tragedies that we allow God to inch closer.

         In the Book of Job, both God and Job find ways that work for them to inch closer to one another.

         I shared earlier that Greta, the goldendoodle, has been inching her way closer to Bella, the cat, for two years. What I didn’t tell you is that their cat sibling, Herman, died several weeks ago. It was a tragic loss for everyone, for Bella most of all. And in that time, in that loss, in her grieving, Bella has allowed Greta to move closer to her.

         She still sets boundaries and isn’t sure about the enthusiastic pup. But they are getting closer. Allowing space for one another. Allowing a reluctant relationship to form.

         What we see in Job, what we see often in life, is God inching closer to us in our moments of tragedy. God waits until we are ready to let God in, and then slowly, patiently, shows that we can grow in relationship with God.

         And, that we humans can set boundaries on that relationship so that we feel safe and comfortable. As our trust grows, our relationship with God can deepen and evolve as well.

         I love that a poet, sometime between 6 and 9 thousand years ago, sat down and told a story about how to grow in a relationship with God through tragedy. And that the poet used a popular culture story to do so. The poet took the accepted understanding of wealth being a sign of God’s favor, and tragedy or poverty being a sign of God’s punishment, God took those beliefs and turned them on their heads.

         The Book of Job became immediately important in the Jewish Canon. And it remains an important puzzle piece in understanding how we can be in our own unique relationship with God.

         For our homework this week, I’d like us all to think about how we think the version of our story with God would be told. And for extra credit, think about how we want that story to be told, how we want our relationship with God to be.

Amen

In Celebration of St. Francis

I really like St. Francis. At least, I like the idea of him. The idea that was brought to me by celebrating St. Francis day by blessing animals and by saying the prayer of St. Francis.

         You know the one. We’ll say it together in a few moments, actually. “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace: where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy.

O divine Creator, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console, to be understood as to understand, to be loved as to love. For it is in giving that we receive, it is in pardoning that we are pardoned, and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen.”

I love that prayer. When I’m walking into uncertain pastoral situations, and even some situations where I know what’s coming, I will softly pray to myself, Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.

In the last few years I found out Francis didn’t write that prayer. Like what happens many times in Scripture, most notably in the Psalms and with some of the Epistles attributed to Paul, the prayer of St. Francis was written to honor him, but was not written by him.

I looked at some of the Canticles of Francis, which he is known to have written, in preparation for today, and what I found was a man who would be pushed to the fringes of modern Christianity. He was a man who put God first, in all things, and saw the goodness of God in all things – especially those things that society had pushed to the margins or dismissed as worthless.

If Francis were alive and practicing Christianity today, honestly, I think he’d be thrown out of the church. Even the Episcopal Church.

He called for a Christ centered life, one that disregarded material things and wealth in favor of loving and respecting all of creation. A life that respected the unhoused person MORE than the rich person. A life that required re-examining your life and priorities in favor of being God in this world.

Last week I asked us all to take a look at our wealth. How we acquired wealth, how our families accumulated wealth; how the companies that pay us acquired their wealth. Living into the example Saints such as Francis set is part of why I asked us all to do this difficult work.

I did my homework. And I’d like to share with you all what I discovered; some of which are things I’m not proud of from my family history. My grandparents made their living as developers of the community in Maryland that my Mom still lives in. My grandfather bought the land, not from the Piscataway people who originally inhabited the land, but from another white person in the years leading up to WWII. The Piscataway people had been driven off the land 200 years previously, once it became clear that the soil in Calvert County was perfect to grow tobacco.

The Piscataway were not paid for the land. They were driven off by violence and disease.

My family certainly did not pay them for the land that we still call home.

I don’t know how to make this wrong right. Or even just less wrong. So I did what I hope all of us would do: I asked.

On Friday afternoon I sent an email to the tribe, not the elders, that seems rude and presumptive, but to the general info email. And in that email I explained why I was writing, and asked what I could do. I offered to send money as I was able, and also, I said that this was more than white guilt, more than a white person offering to throw money at a problem to make it go away. I want to do my part, however small it will be, in healing a wrong. Certainly, I think it would be a good starting place to find out how much my Grandfather paid and give them that.

What I offered, and what they are under no obligation to say yes to, is to begin a process of forgiveness. Of acknowledging a harm, a wrong, and of the slow and painful process to make it right. At least on one very small level.

It’s vulnerable, and scary, and they have every right to say no to my efforts.

But, and this is important, this is the work that Christ calls us to do. I don’t want to do it. It’s vulnerable, and raw, and touches a deep part of my soul that I’m not proud of and I’m not comfortable with. There’s a voice that sneering at me and asking why? Saying that my attempt to make amends is but a drop in a deep bucket.

But it’s still a drop.

So I’m doing it anyway. And I’m standing in front of you saying I’m doing it.

And that I hope you all do too, whatever this healing looks like for you. Take a deep look at who you are, and how you came to be here. And honestly ask if there’s anything there that you just know isn’t right.

For me, it’s that my family made a fortune selling land that wasn’t there’s to sell. And that they never paid the rightful owners for. That’s wrong.

Before my grandparents, my family were farmers in Virginia and New Jersey.

While it isn’t documented, and they weren’t plantation owners, it is highly likely that my family owned slaves. That my family thought and acted as though they could own other human beings is a wrong that I will never be able to make right.

But until my last breath, I will try to heal some of that harm.

The lesson we have from the Gospel today, and from the life an example of St. Francis, is to never see ourselves as greater than anyone else. We are to see that all of creation is all an extension of God. We are not better than anyone else, nor are we better than anything else.

As I mentioned earlier, in a moment we are going to say the prayer of St. Francis. A wonderful tribute, but not words that Francis himself wrote. Instead, in closing today, I would like to read something Francis did write. This is the Canticle of Creation, believed to have been written towards the end of Francis’s life. When he knew the church thought of him as a rogue problem, rather than a beloved follower of Christ. When Francis was going blind, and still grateful for every moment, breath, and experience of creation:

Most High, all-powerful, good Lord, Yours are the praises, the glory, and the honour, and all blessing. To You alone, Most High, do they belong, and no human is worthy to mention Your name.

Praised be You, my Lord, with all Your creatures, especially Sir Brother Sun, Who is the day and through whom You give us light. And he is beautiful and radiant with great splendour; and bears a likeness of You, Most High One.

Praised be You, my Lord, through Sister Moon and the stars, in heaven You formed them clear and precious and beautiful. Praised be You, my Lord, through Brother Wind, and through the air, cloudy and serene, and every kind of weather, through whom You give sustenance to Your creatures.

Praised be You, my Lord, through Sister Water, who is very useful and humble and precious and chaste. Praised be You, my Lord, through Brother Fire, through whom You light the night, and he is beautiful and playful and robust and strong.

Praised be You, my Lord, through our Sister Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us, and who produces various fruit with coloured flowers and herbs.

Praised be You, my Lord, through those who give pardon for Your love, and bear infirmity and tribulation.

Blessed are those who endure in peace for by You, Most High, shall they be crowned.

Praised be You, my Lord, through our Sister Bodily Death, from whom no one living can escape.

Woe to those who die in mortal sin.
Blessed are those whom death will find in Your most holy will, for the second death shall do them no harm.

Praise and bless my Lord and give [God] thanks and serve [God] with great humility.

— St. Francis of Assisi

Put a camel where?

One of my favorite images is a tree of life. I’ve seen it depicted in many ways and as many trees. The tree of life on my arm actually looks a bit like a willow tree with over hanging leaves and a long root structure. The thing about the Tree of Life though, and why a willow tree worked for me in my tattoo, is that the root system is generally as important as the leaves and the trunk.

         The leaves and the trunk get all the attention, but the roots are the foundation. And they are always right there, just under the surface, just as strong and important as the leaves and the roots.

         As I thought about this Gospel, Mark 10:17-31, the tree of life kept coming back to me. To me this Gospel is an example of what I call a tree life Scripture: there’s what we see, and there’s what’s under the surface.

         I know I’ve said it before, and I know I’ll say it going forward, and I’ll say it today too: there’s more to Scripture than the literal translation of words into English that we read today.

         This is so for many reasons. Some words are just really difficult to translate. And a lot of meaning is lost when we go from a spoken language, Aramaic, to a written language, Greek, and then translate those words again into Latin, and then ultimately English. Some languages are more complex than others, and many languages, including the 3 I’ve mentioned today, include meanings, gender, tone, and tenses in each word.

         One sentence in this Gospel is particularly difficult to translate:

“It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kindom of God!”

         Part of the issue is that in Aramaic the words for Camel and Rope are written the same but said differently. In Greek, the words are said the same and written almost identically. Neither Greek nor Aramaic were written using punctuation, which is where the differences could be seen. Camel and rope are clearly different in both spoken and written Latin and English.

         But what this means is that when the words went from spoken Aramaic to written Aramaic, then to spoken and written Greek, then to written Latin, then to written English, there were interpretation decisions made all along the way, along with a few best guesses, and a couple of absolute guesses.

         Someone, at some point, who didn’t hear Jesus talk about this directly, or even indirectly, decided that the word was camel instead of rope. Which is perfectly reasonable.

         And then, somewhere between the 9th and the 15th Century, a Catholic priest decided that the eye of the needle was a physical place, a gate in the wall of Jerusalem.

         Now, this isn’t an unreasonable thing because a lot of Ancient cities had special gates that only opened at night. These gates were very small. Allowing a person to easily pass though, but not baggage and not a large animal loaded down with goods. In order to pass through one of these gates a person would have to go in without carrying their baggage. And, if they were traveling with a loaded down camel, they would have to unburden the camel and push it through the gate.

         This was possible. But not particularly easy.

         However, and this is important, there is no archeological or historical evidence to suggest that Jerusalem had such a gate. Could be that Jesus said these words to people living in a different city, Bethlehem and Bethany where very close by to Jerusalem, and Jesus is known to have traveled around the region. Maybe one of those places had a small gate, which are rumored to have been sometimes known as the eye of a needle. But if Jesus were talking about Jerusalem, there was no gate there.

         Maybe Jesus was talking about a physical camel and an actual needle, as is the common and modern literal approach. This is of course not possible, to shove a 1,000 pound animal through a sewing needle – and to make sure sewing needles weren’t dramatically larger in the 1st century, I looked; sewing needles were a bit longer back then, 3-5 inches, they were certainly not big enough to get a camel through.

         Though those needles did have eyes.

         Or maybe Jesus was talking about a rope. Passing a rope through the eye of a needle. The stripping down of the rope would be similar to what was necessary to unladen a camel to get through a small gate.

         Or, maybe Jesus was discussing a thick nautical rope being passed through what was called an eye of a needle, but was really a rock with a big hole in it that was used to tie up boats. The rocks were very sturdy, but if the weather was rough, threading the rope through the eye of the needle was a very difficult thing to do. This was commonly known at the time and would’ve been well known to the fishermen who followed Jesus.

         It seems to me that all of these different possibilities, they’re all like leaves on that tree of life. And much like the moral of the simile that Jesus is using, it’s not what is most easily visible that’s most important.

         What matters most here, what matters most with much of what Jesus said, what matters most when looking at any of these ancient texts when the thing being described no longer exists or has totally changed, is the core teaching. The core teaching is the rope stripped down to a thread, or the camel unburdened to get through the gate.

         Here that core teaching, to me, based on my many years of study and experience, is to love ourselves and one another as God loved us. And before that, to love the lord our God above all else.

         I believe that Jesus is telling this man, who we are told is wealthy, that he must love God above everything else. More than his accumulated wealth and possessions. More than continuing to acquire wealth and possessions.

         In society at the time, and even today to some extent, there was a belief that having a lot of goods, of money, of enslaved people, was a sign of God’s favor. In one sentence, Jesus tells this man that having a lot of things, of money, of property, of owned humans, those things don’t matter to God.

         Where your heart is pointed is what matters to God. Is your heart pointed towards God? That’s what Christ says is necessary to enter the kindom of God, and everything else is a distraction.

         It is, quite honestly, difficult to preach this text in an Episcopal Church, where there are people who are quite wealthy. And people who are poor. And people who are wealthy by world standards, but not by United States standards.

         The message to us is very different than the message Jesus preached to the poor, the sick, the outcasts, the enslaved people.

         We are far more likely to be the person Jesus tells to sell everything.

         I’ve heard the eye of the needle sermon preached where the takeaway is to be really intentional about our money and what we do with it. Are we accumulating, or sharing?

         I like that message. It resonated and I’ve tried to live accordingly.

         But honestly, I don’t think it’s enough. It lets us off the hook for what we did to accumulate that wealth.

         By this logic, the Episcopal Church is let off the hook for it’s role in slavery and racism without any repercussions because we donate to charity now.

         By this logic America is let off the hook for becoming a wealthy superpower nation on the backs of enslaved humans.

         By this logic, a person can accumulate wealth by exploiting other humans, putting their own needs above the basic livelihood of the people who work or are impacted by whatever they do to accumulate wealth.

         This is not enough. It’s buying your way in to eternal life.

         What we do with our wealth matters, but so does how we accumulate wealth in the first place, and if we have our hearts pointed towards God all along.

         And, what we do with ourselves and our wealth once we realize that we weren’t pointed at God, or weren’t as God centered as we thought we were.

         This weekend we celebrate Indigenous People’s Day. A day that is also set aside to honor a man who committed genocide in the pursuit of wealth and was lauded as a hero because of it.

         Each of us sit on land that was stolen from people who already lived here.

         Each of us were taught in school that this land is ours.

         But it’s not.

         We were taught a lie. We know that now. It hurts and it’s scary.

         And until we take an honest look at what we as individuals have done, and we as a society have done, we will not be living into the commands of Christ.

         We will be trying to force a 1,000 pound camel through the eye of a sewing needle.

         With our eyes and hearts pointed towards God, we can do this hard work.

         It starts with us.

         It starts with us taking an intentional look at the roots of our own trees of life. To see what it is that supports us, nourishes us, and holds us up.

         Our homework this week is to take an honest look at any wealth we have accumulated and ask ourselves, how did we accumulate this, how did the company we work for accumulate this, what can we do to make this right now? How do we live into this commandment of God to love God above all other things? Including money.

         I’m here if anyone wants or needs help. I won’t judge. Just listen and walk with you as your sort this out.

Amen

Please don’t cut off your hand… a sermon on Mark 9:38-50

This week’s readings can be found here.

When I was a teenager I received a bit of sage advice. I don’t remember who told me this, nor have I looked to see if this is an academically studied fact, but nevertheless, this advice has been something I have used often as a guiding light in my interactions with other humans:

The things that we dislike about other people are often a reflection of something we dislike within ourselves.

I’ve used this advice as a kind of check for when someone does something that rubs me the wrong way. For example: it makes me crazy when people are in traffic and change lanes (or cross over multiple lanes) without using a blinker.

I genuinely dislike the danger this causes.

However, when holding this against what it rubs against within me, I see that it reflects my tendency to be a bit selfish and put my needs ahead of others.

  And so I use this as a reminder that it’s important to put others first.

         This is a very Biblical idea, both to put others first, and to be self-reflective.

         Both of these are in play in the Gospel today.

         Now, apparently this Gospel reading is one that is considered difficult to preach on and a lot of preachers shy away from. If you’re a Biblical literalist and preach a text that talks about cutting off your hand and plucking out your eye, I can see how this would be difficult.

         I, however, am not a Biblical literalist. I know that allegory and analogies and even elaborating on the truth, were all very common literary techniques a few thousand years ago, and as such, they are written into Scripture. Also, the Bible isn’t a history book.

         So, please don’t go about plucking out eyes nor cutting off hands, your’s or those of others.

         Instead, please take a moment to consider what it is you think this Gospel reading is trying to get across? What is the point of Jesus’s teaching here?

         Let’s take a moment to consider this hear. Consider it a pop quiz on if you were paying attention in the Gospel reading! Feel free to chat on the zoom, or pop an answer into the chat! Here, pair up.

         What do you think this Gospel reading, this teaching of Christ, is attempting to teach?

          I think this reading is about:

understanding yourself and what motivates you;

considering how to master yourself and those parts of you that you might think are beyond your control;

how you treat people who are outside of your immediate circle;

being kind and gracious to those who are outside of your immediate circle;

to not harm people, nor to intentionally put stumbling blocks before them;

and, when something goes wrong, don’t pretend it’s fine!

         And, one more to remember: it’s not our differences that drive us apart, it’s our similarities and the hubris of believing that the way we are doing things is best.

         Driving around here is an opportunity to take a lot of deep breaths, and do our best to remember that we are one of many, not the only car on the road. At least for me. And while I think a lot of people have had come to Jesus moments while driving in and around Boston. So our homework this week is that when we see something happen on the road that makes us gasp, or cringe, or even tssk at someone, use that moment as an opportunity to take a deep breath and remember that we are all in this together.

         And if you drive this week and don’t have a moment like that, I encourage you to ask the people closest to you if you are, in fact, on of the people who drives in a way that makes others gasp. And then be better. And use a blinker.

Amen