The Ever-Changing Church

Things weren’t looking good for the Church as the sixth chapter of Acts begins.  Despite some early successes, including three thousand new members on Pentecost, public perception was that they were a tiny minority of fools, following a failed, fake Messiah, doomed to flounder for a few months before it all came crashing down.  On top of that, a series of intense internal squabbles threatened to split the Church.  Leaders who were picked based on their ability to teach and preach and inspire, suddenly found themselves having to learn how to administrate.  Factions were arguing constantly, and the leadership could no longer do it all on their own.  So, with some reluctance, they decided to open up the ranks, and seven new leaders were brought on board.  These men, called Deacons, were charged with the day-to-day operations of the ministry, while the rest continued to focus their attention on teaching and preaching.

As we are well aware here at Christ Church, a good Deacon is worth their weight in gold.  Seven good Deacons showed the potential to turn the Church around.  The word of God spread because it had hands and feet in the world.  The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly as people began to experience the love of God lived out in real life.  Things were blowing and going and everything looked great, until… Luke tells us that even many of the priests of Judaism were being converted by this newfound way of being the Church.  Converting the rank and file is one thing, but religious leaders don’t take too kindly to the poaching of clergy.  Stephen, one of the seven Deacons, was supremely gifted.  Like Deacon Kellie, Stephen’s skills went way beyond the primary role of Deacon as a servant minister.  Stephen was filled with the Holy Spirit.  He was a gifted preacher.  He had a servant’s heart.  He even began to perform miracles.  His public persona became the focus of frustration for some of the Jewish leadership.

The story we heard this morning comes at the tail end of a long Passion Narrative for Stephen.  In many ways, his story follows what happened to Jesus.  A secret plot leads to the need for false witnesses to testify before the authorities.  Ultimately, the power of the crowd is used to convict Stephen and he is sentenced to death as a blasphemer and dragged out of the city to be killed. As he dies, Stephen, like Jesus, asks God to forgive those who killed him.[1]  Despite all manner of hardship, the prodigal love of God that was enfleshed in Jesus of Nazareth was still at work in the world, through disciples like Deacon Stephen, but things were about to get much, much worse.

The Lectionary ends at chapter seven, verse sixty, but the story of Stephen doesn’t really end until one verse later – chapter eight, verse one.  There, the story transitions based around a new character who will carry the narrative through the rest of the book.  “Saul was there, giving approval to his death.”  We heard Saul’s name in our assigned passage.  He was said to be a young man who was trusted to watch everyone’s overcoats as they stoned Stephen to death. Saul was a Pharisees’ Pharisee.  The son of a Pharisee, Saul was an up-and-coming leader in the Jewish faith, and after the message he heard in Stephen’s final sermon, he made it his duty to destroy the Christian faith.

Things weren’t looking good for the Church as the eighth chapter of Acts begins.  After their brief glimmer of hope was snuffed out by Stephen’s death, Saul successfully organized a massive persecution of the followers of Jesus.  Those who didn’t flee the city or deny their faith in Jesus, men and women alike, were dragged from their homes and thrown in prison for blasphemy.  The Apostles hid, not unlike they did after the death of Jesus, and the faithful fled to surrounding communities in Judea and Samaria.  There were only a handful of Christians left in Jerusalem, their membership was spread all throughout the land, and there was no Facebook Live to broadcast Sunday services.

What happened next is nothing short of a miracle.  The people who scattered took the story of Jesus with them.  As they travelled, they told about the power that God’s love and how Jesus had changed their lives.  They showed God’s love to strangers in their new communities by acts of compassion and service and by modeling the sharing of resources for the needs of the poor.  These people, who fled everything they knew for fear of their lives, took Jesus with them on the road, and lo and behold, the Church continued to grow.  When everything else fell apart around them, the faithful reinvented what it meant to the be the Church in order to share the Good News of Jesus Christ and the love of God with everyone they met.

As we continue to navigate this new reality of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Church could learn a lot from the experience of the early church during the sixth, seventh, and eighth chapters of Acts.  We aren’t being persecuted, but we aren’t able to meet together either.  Still, we have the chance to share the Good News of Jesus Christ and the Love of God with the world by staying healthy and hopeful at home.  Our clergy might be focused on how to preach and teach in this new climate, but so many of you have found ways to step up and serve your neighbors generously, by ordering meals for the Salvation Army and BRASS, by dropping off fresh baked bread, helping out with grocery shopping, sending cards and letters, and making phone calls.

Twice in a matter of weeks, the early church fundamentally changed how it did business, and the Gospel flourished.  As we come to the realization that this marathon is going to last a lot longer than any of us wants, the Church writ large, and Christ Church specifically, is going to have to take on a spirit of adaptation, of listening for the Holy Spirit, and of evangelistic zeal for the building up of the Kingdom of God.  Even when we can re-open our building, the ways in which we worship God, learn and grow, and radiate God’s love are going to look vastly different than they did on March 12th.  Our task, as we settle in for the long haul, is to discern as a community how God is calling us to be the Church in the world during and beyond these unprecedented times.

None of us has the answers quite yet, but we do have models to look to as we think and pray and dream.  We have the story of Stephen, the work of the diaconate, and the spread of the Gospel in the diaspora, among many others to remind us that even in hardship, uncertainty, and fear, the Church’s mission to restore all people to right relationship with God and with each other will not fail.  The Son of Man continues to stand at the right hand of God, which means that evil, fear, and folly can never win.  Things haven’t looked good for the Church before, but God who is faithful will show us the way to the truth of eternal life.  Amen.

[1] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=4456

Don’t Worry? – a mid-week reflection

Today, the Church remembers Catherine of Siena, who died on this date in the year 1380.

Let us pray.

Everlasting God, you so kindled the flame of holy love in the heart of blessed Catherine of Siena, as she meditated on the passion of your Son our Savior, that she devoted her life to the poor and the sick, and to the peace and unity of the Church: Grant that we also may share in the mystery of Christ’s death, and rejoice in the revelation of his glory; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

The Gospel lesson appointed for today is select verses from Luke chapter twelve.

Jesus said to his disciples, “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing. Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds! And do not keep striving for what you are to eat and what you are to drink, and do not keep worrying. For it is the nations of the world that strive after all these things, and your Father knows that you need them. Instead, strive for his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well.”


Whether it is coming from Bobby McFerrin or Jesus of Nazareth, “Don’t worry, be happy” is easier said than done.  In what feels like the 10th year of Coronatide, I found myself getting viscerally angry at Jesus for these “words of comfort” to his disciples.  As usual, Biblical texts taken out of context can be detrimental to your health.  What seems like simple platitudes from our Lord are actually part of a much larger teaching by Jesus on the dangers of following him long-term.  See, a crowd of many thousands had started to follow Jesus.  The crowd was so large that, in order to hear him teach, they had begun to press in so close that some were being trampled.  As Jesus looked at the crowd, he realized that many of them were there for the wrong reasons – thinking they had hitched their wagons to the next King of Israel and looking forward to a life on easy street.

The first time Jesus tells his disciples, and by extension the crowd, not to worry, he does so in the context of dying for their faith.  “Don’t be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more.  But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after the killing of the body, has power to throw you into hell.”  After the parable of the rich fool, who after a bountiful harvest built bigger barns rather than sharing his largesse and died that very night, Jesus continues with this series of warnings not to worry about earthly things, but rather, to remain focused on the greater things of the Kingdom of God.

Catherine of Siena was born in 1347 as the twenty-third or twenty-fourth child of her mother, Lapa and father, Giacomo.  One of a set of twins, Catherine’s sister, Giovanna died shortly after birth.  In all, her parents lost just under half of their 25 children at a young age.  Catherine’s first few years were spent under the fear of the black plague that killed upwards of 200 million people in Europe between 1347 and 1353.  As the plague came to an end, Catherine and a brother went to visit one of their married older sisters, and on the way home, at the age of five or six, she had a vision of Jesus seated in heaven with Peter, Paul, and John.  By the age of seven, she vowed to give her life to God.  For the majority of her life, Catherine lived under her own strict rule of life.  As a third order nun, she did not live in the monastery with her sisters, but remained at her family home.  Rather than enjoy the comforts of her family’s relatively well-to-do lifestyle, she was constantly giving away all of her food and clothing.  Her only meal most days was the bread and wine of the Eucharist.  Amidst all of this, she also found herself in the middle of not one, but two controversies involving competing Popes.

If anyone had reason to be prone to worry, Catherine of Siena did, and yet, she always chose the harder path.  Whether it was becoming a nurse so that she could treat lepers or nearly being assassinated in a riot after the death of her friend, Pope Gregory the eleventh, Catherine set her hope on Christ, and found reason to have faith.

Maybe Jesus has a point.  We have very little to do with the rain or sun or the yield of the harvest.  Ours is not to worry about how much toilet paper gets produced in a week, but only to give thanks when the Kroger shelves are stocked and to share of our abundance when we come across a 24 pack in all its glory.

Blessed to be a Blessing

On Maundy Thursday, my family sat down around our dining room table with a Church at Home bulletin, some fancy beverages, and a freshly baked loaf of Leslie Weigel’s sourdough bread, ready for a feast.  As we walked through the liturgy, with a priest at the table, it felt strange to not just have communion.  Instead, our girls said the prayers over the bread and the wine and the cherry lime sparkling ice beverages.  We couldn’t gather as a congregation to celebrate the Eucharist on Maundy Thursday, the night in which Jesus instituted the central sacrament of our church, and so neither did my family get to have their own private communion service.  As a clergy team, we very quickly decided that the Governor’s “Healthy at Home” order and the Bishop’s Pastoral Directive meant that due to the Eucharist’s fundamentally communal nature, we should all fast until we can all have the opportunity to share in the sacramental nourishment from the riches of Christ’s grace.  While we don’t all have the same Eucharistic theologies, Becca, Kellie, and I were able to agree that without the ability to be together to share Christ’s body and the blood, the fullness of the Eucharist would be lacking.  That’s not to say, however, that what we experienced around our dining room table on Maundy Thursday evening wasn’t special or sacred.

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As my girls read the prayers that night, my eyes wandered to the notes about the prayers, which pointed out that while the words and shape of them might sound familiar, what was happening there wasn’t “consecration” but rather “blessing, something all Christians are called to do.”  Now, I’m certain that nobody watching this live-stream wants to hear me wax poetic about my own understanding of the nature of the Eucharist, the right and wrong ways to worship during a pandemic, or the nuances of language between blessing and consecration, but this distinction has been helpful to me.  As many of you know, the action that we now know as the Eucharist is based on a common Jewish ritual of the shared meal; a ritual that Jesus and his disciples would have experienced almost every day.  Remembering this has proven helpful as I try to overcome my grief about our inability to break bread together around this altar.

Eight weeks into this “new normal” of live-streamed worship, having to hear how the disciples recognized the Lord Jesus in the breaking of the bread seems unfair at best – maybe even downright cruel.  As I look at the calendar and think that it’ll be at least another five or six weeks before we can even begin re-gather for in-person worship.  As I slowly come to realize that what that in-person worship will look like is a whole lot less like the Easter Day packed house I long for and probably a whole lot more the like a physically distant Wednesday healing service, hearing that Cleopas and his companion got to see the resurrected Jesus take, bless, and break the bread feels like a bit of a gut punch.  As the Psalmist asks, so we might cry out, “How long, O Lord?  How long?”

Sermon prep during physical distancing looks a lot different than sermon prep used to.  Gone are the days of twenty-page print outs of sermon resources.  My bookshelves aren’t at my beck and call.  My brain is working at less than full capacity, and I find myself easily distracted.  Maybe you know how that feels.  Anyway, this week, in a call back to sermon prep long before I became a Rector, back when I had more time on my hands, I pulled up the Sermon Brainwave Podcast.  Four of the best Biblical and preaching scholars in America spend thirty minutes each week talking through the lessons appointed for Sunday, and I just knew they’d give me a fresh perspective.  Karoline Lewis didn’t disappoint.  She pointed out that Jesus breaking bread with his disciples, what we so often see through our lenses as a Eucharistic action, is, in the context of that first Easter afternoon, simply a ritual that Jesus and Cleopas and his friend would have shared dozens or even hundreds of times before.

When Luke writes that Jesus took the bread, blessed and broke it, he isn’t just telling the story as a re-creation of the Last Supper.  Luke uses the same language in the story of the feeding of the five-thousand.  Jesus commissioned the disciples to feed the crowd, but when they balked at the idea, he took the five loaves and two fish, looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke them, before giving the pieces to the disciples to distribute.  Jesus provided an abundant meal to show the disciples what their ministry should look like.

In the Road to Emmaus story, Jesus empowers the disciples yet again by way of a meal, to take the news of the resurrection out into the world.  The broken bread and shared cup of the Eucharist might be one way that our eyes can be opened to see the Lord Jesus, but what is clear to me in this experience of Eucharistic fasting is that it is most certainly not the only way to see Jesus in our midst.  Whether it is formally consecrated by a priest or blessed by the prayers of two little blonds around our dinner table or blessed by the staff at Indian Oven who prepare perfectly baked naan for take-out, I see Jesus in broken bread of all kinds.  I love carbs, but even when there isn’t bread involved, I can see Jesus at work in this strange new world every day.

I’ve seen Jesus at work though our staff, vestry, and eucharistic visitors making calls to parishioners to check-in with one another.  I’ve seen Jesus at work in the tireless efforts of HOTEL INC, the Salvation Army, United Way, BRASS, and Hope House to serve our at-risk neighbors.  I’ve seen Jesus at work in the sewing of masks for health care workers, our neighbors experiencing homelessness, and some of our most vulnerable members.  I’ve seen Jesus in the care that so many are showing toward one another; a care that has maybe been assumed or taken for granted for too long.  I’ve seen Jesus in the generosity of so many who have given in abundance to keep our congregation in a solid financial position.  I even see Jesus in the camera lens, as I get to share the Good News to people I know and love on the other side of an internet connection. The Lord Jesus has been made known to me in all kinds of new and interesting ways during this difficult season.

After the bread and drinks were blessed on Maundy Thursday, we prayed together, giving thanks for every person who brought the meal to our table and asking God to use that meal, and every meal, to give us strength to be good stewards, to care for creation and for one another.  That is how we continue to make Christ present in the world around us, by loving God and loving our neighbors as ourselves.  Even in this time of physical distancing, each of us who follow Jesus as Lord has the opportunity to shine the light of Christ, to be Jesus, for our neighbors, our friends, our families, and even to strangers who are walking this same difficult road.  Today, you might need to see Jesus.  Tomorrow, it could be your turn to be Jesus.  While we remain unable to see Jesus in the breaking of the Eucharistic bread here at church, there are still plenty of opportunities to be Body of Christ in the world as we, like disciples across time, are blessed to be a blessing.  Amen.

One Word Changes Everything

On May 10, 2018, NBC News tweeted a report that said, “Major depression is on the rise among everyone, new data shows.”  In response, a sportswriter named Robert O’Neill[1] tweeted back, “Well, I mean.” followed by stage directions that read “gestures broadly at everything.”  More than twenty-eight thousand retweets and ninety thousand likes later, and the *gestures broadly at everything* meme became a permanent part of internet culture.  I had a pretty strong sarcastic streak in me before the COVID-19 pandemic and mandated physical distancing rules, but after a month at home, I’ve polished my sarcasm into a sparkling diamond.  It wasn’t surprising to me, then, as I read the Easter Gospel this week, that the sarcastic *gestures broadly at everything* meme came to mind.  Every time I read it, I couldn’t help but hear the angels ask Mary Magdalene, “Woman, why are you weeping?” and see Mary sarcastically respond with a *gestures broadly at everything* type motion.

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“Woman, why are you weeping?”  Well, let’s start on Thursday night, when one of my friend’s closest disciples betrayed him for a lousy bag of silver.  A mob of soldiers and police came to arrest him, and when things got heated, somebody got their ear chopped off.  Then, another disciple, one of Jesus’ inner circle, maybe the person closest to him of all, denied even knowing him on three separate occasions, while inside the Chief Priest’s house, they spent the whole night trying to make up fraudulent charges against him.  By Friday morning, they had gotten something to stick, or at least they convinced themselves they had, and dragged Jesus over to the Governor’s house, where after hours of back and forth, Pilate handed my friend over to be killed, even though he knew that Jesus had done nothing that deserved crucifixion.  We watched as they beat him senseless, crowned him with thorns, mocked him, spit at him, and made him carry his own cross through the city and out to Golgotha, where they nailed him to a cross and laughed at him while he slowly suffocated to death.  As the sun was about to set, they took down his body and we hastily put it in this tomb in order to keep the Sabbath.  And now, here I am ready to anoint him for a proper burial and somebody has taken him away.  Why am I weeping? *Gestures broadly at everything. *. Yeah, all of that, and a whole lot more, is why I’m weeping.

I’m thinking that maybe most of you can relate to the sarcastic Mary Magdalene character I’ve created in my mind.  Without so many of the traditions that I know and love about Holy Week, I’ve found it really challenging to get into the mindset that there is anything different about today; that there is anything worth celebrating.  As I got up this morning, while it was still dark, put on my seersucker suit that barely fits thanks to a month of snacking, TV watching, and social distancing, and prepared to make my way to 1215 State Street, I couldn’t help but feel sad.  I miss seeing your smiling faces, I miss the craziness of the Easter Egg Hunts all around the building, I miss the brass and the timpani, I miss seeing Mrs. Spiller arrive at 7:30 to tie lilies to the processional cross, though she still managed to be here in spirit, I miss the joy, the excitement, and the exhaustion of a week that is hard and holy and exhausting and awe-inspiring all wrapped up in one.  I miss *gestures broadly at everything* all of it.

As soon as Mary expresses her fear, frustration, and anguish with the two angels, a new character arrives on the scene.  She assumes him to be the gardener and implores him, “If you took him, please tell me where he is so that I can give him a proper burial.”  There is still not even an inkling in her mind that Jesus is anything other than dead and his body, missing.  This moment had to be the depth of her sadness, her darkest hour, as she desperately searched for the body of her friend, Rabbi, and Lord.  There, at rock bottom, nearly crushed by the shadow of the valley of death, the man Mary thought was the gardener spoke a single word, and her world, and the whole world, changed forever.

Mary.

This year, when everything feels so strange and difficult and dark, I think the word that changed everything for me is “Alleluia.”  I’ll admit, I snuck it in a few days early.  Standing beside a grave in Fairview #1 on Thursday afternoon, I ended the Committal liturgy by saying “Alleluia, Christ is risen.”  Five voices replied back “The Lord is risen indeed, Alleluia,” and I almost lost it; as the power of breaking that particular fast washed over me.

Alleluia.

A word of praise that we set aside for the season of Lent.  A communal act of fasting that is meant to help prepare us for the joy of Easter.  Having not said that word for more than a month, when I heard it come from my lips, it brought me a twinge of the joy that I knew I’d miss this morning.  I don’t know if hearing it through a screen and saying it in your pajamas or your Easter finest in your living room had the same effect, but I sure hope it did.

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A new meme was created this week ahead of Easter-in-Quarantine.  While it isn’t nearly as popular as the *gestures broadly at everything* meme, I found it helpful as I processed my emotions around this odd and holy day.  It features an image of the Grinch, and in someone’s best Dr. Seuss impression, it reads, “It came without dresses.  It came without ties. It came without baskets, egg, hams, or pies.  And he puzzled and puzzled ‘til his puzzler was sore.  Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn’t before.  What if Easter, he thought, doesn’t come from a store?  What if Easter, perhaps, means a little bit more?”  Now, we know that the Easter Bunny is an essential employee, and I hope you’re having something delicious for dinner today, but the deep truth of that meme remains.  Even without many of the usual trappings of Easter, Jesus Christ is risen today!  No power on earth, in heaven, or hell, no pandemic or *gestures broadly at everything* anything else in all creation can keep Easter from coming.  Whether we are all gathered in this space, or each in our own homes.  The tomb is still empty.  Darkness did not win.  Hope still lives.

It’s ok to miss all the fun things that go along with our Easter celebrations, but this year, I have found it helpful to remember that the joy of Easter was first discovered by Mary Magdalene in sadness and deep darkness.  In the speaking of a single word, Jesus raised Mary Magdalene to resurrected life.  At the heart of Easter is the truth that God will never leave us, and that sometimes, even with just a single word, God can overcome *gestures broadly at everything* all the sorrow and worry and shame that the world, and we, can place upon us.  Jesus Christ is risen today, and is present in every living room, bedroom, and back porch where this message is being live-streamed, ready to embrace you with the grace and hope and love of God.  So, whether you are gathered with your spouse, with your children, or watching this and feeling all alone, know that you are loved by God and by your community at Christ Church.  And even though we are apart, with God’s help, we can *gestures broadly at everything* all be together as we share in the Good News of Easter, “Alleluia! Christ is risen!” “The Lord is risen indeed, Alleluia!” Amen.

[1] https://twitter.com/robertoneill31/status/994691275960926208?lang=en

Good Friday and the Space to Grieve

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed just about every aspect of our lives.  From the way we work to the way we grocery shop; from the way we interact with friends and neighbors to the way we worship.  As I thought more about it, I couldn’t name a way in which my life hasn’t changed, except maybe that I still get to sleep in my own bed.  On Sunday morning, Cassie’s aunt died in Florida after a lengthy illness, and yesterday, I performed a graveside burial service for one-time Christ Church member, Charles Davenport.  These two things have made me keenly aware that our practices around death have profoundly changed.  As a family, we are unable to gather together to mourn the loss of a loved one.  Text messages, Facetime conversations, and notes of encouragement help supplement, but they don’t take the place of families gathering to share stories, to hug and cry, to laugh and reminisce.

Mourning the death of a loved one and the burial habits that are a part of that process of grief were understandably close to my mind as I read through the Passion narrative from John’s Gospel.  It isn’t hard to notice that things are quite different than our normal arrangements.  Rather than our usual pattern of Christian burial here in the United States, which can take a week or more and include various visitations, all kinds of family gatherings, large funeral services, and graveside ceremonies, the standard Jewish customs around death and burial feel quite rushed.  All the way in Deuteronomy, we read the requirement that burial is to take place as quickly as possible after death.  In the case of the death of Jesus, the process was necessarily made to work even faster.

Jesus died on a Friday afternoon, which meant that the Sabbath was about start.  As a result, important steps were skipped in the burial process. Dating back to Abraham and Sarah, one of the key elements of the Jewish burial rite is the Eulogy, but they are forbidden when the death takes place on a Friday.  It isn’t mentioned in John’s Gospel, but in the Synoptics, Matthew, Mark, and Luke all mention that this Friday was also during the Feast of Passover, in the month of Nisan.  This means there were three reasons why the Eulogy would have been skipped.  Time was of the essence as the sun sank low in the western sky.  There was barely time for Joseph of Arimathea to get permission from Pilate, for Nicodemus to bring the spices, and for Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses to anoint his body before it was whisked off and laid in Joseph’s tomb.

Mary and Mary did what they could, given the time constraints, but they knew that this would not be the last time they would see their Rabbi and friend.  As the sun set on Friday night, they began to prepare the ointments for a proper burial for Jesus, but that would have to wait until Sunday.  I wonder what was going through the minds of those women that evening.  It seems there wasn’t a thought in anyone’s mind that they’d find anything other than a dead body, laying on a slab of rock, come Sunday morning, but in the utter haste and mind-numbing confusion of the day, had they even begun to process what had happened?  Was there even room to grieve, or was it just shock and fear and anguish?

I wonder the same for us?  In the utter haste and mind-numbing confusion that has surrounded one life-altering change after another, have we made room to grieve?  As Mother Becca pondered on her blog this week, have we given ourselves permission yet to say, “I’m not ok”?  Whether we have lost a loved one, or a job, or a way of life, or an assumption of safety, or trust in the systems of this world during this pandemic, just keeping the plates spinning, the bills paid, and food on the table is enough to feel overwhelming.  Has there been any room to feel the feelings of grief?  Maybe today is that day.  Maybe these next 46 hours, between noon on Good Friday and 10am on Easter Day, there will be time to slow down, just enough to begin to grieve.  To grieve the sins of the world that took our Savior Jesus Christ to the cross.  To grieve all the events of the 30 days since Governor Beshear first recommended that congregations cancel in-person worship, and later suggested schools close, eventually extending an order to all non-essential businesses.  To grieve the lack of hugs and handshakes, visits to grandkids and trips to the park.

John’s Passion feels like it ends rather abruptly.  Jesus is hastily laid in the tomb. Period.  End of story.  But that’s only because the next word is one of hope.  We need space to grieve, but we do so, knowing that a better day will soon be here.  Amen.

The Annunciation

Today is the Feast of the Annunciation, the day when the Angel Gabriel visited the Virgin Mary and invited her to become the Mother of God.

Luke 1:26-38

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.” Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.


It was exactly three weeks ago, even though it feels more like three years or maybe even three decades, when I posted on my Facebook page these words, “On behalf of God, the angels have always said, and continue to remind us, ‘Fear not.’”  In that moment, none of us could have imagined what the next 21 days would bring.  From a few cases of COVID-19 in a nursing home in Washington State to tens of thousands of cases, half the country under stay-at-home orders, schools and churches meeting online, and an insane run on toilet paper, not even George Orwell’s best dystopian dream could have matched what we’ve just lived through.

Today kind of feels like the first day I’ve taken a deep breath in three weeks.  The foundations have stopped shaking, if only for a moment.  We seem to have a plan coming together for how Christ Church will mark Holy Week and Easter when we cannot gather together.  I’m so thankful for wonderful teammates on our staff and vestry.  It is in this moment, where I feel like I can at least breathe normally again, that I’m hearing the calming words of the angel Gabriel in a new way.

“Don’t be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.”  Mary hadn’t done anything yet.  The flurry of activity and anxiety that would come after she became pregnant out of wedlock was still to come.  In this moment, before the chaos that was to come, before Mary had agreed to anything, before all the work that needed to happen, Gabriel said to Mary not simply, “fear not,” but also “you have found favor with God.”  It is easy, when things feel out of control, when life isn’t what you planned, when fear is all around, to forget that God’s favor rests upon us simply because we exist.  God’s favor is not dependent upon anything we might do, but rather it is the gift that sustains us when times are difficult.  It isn’t just that we don’t have to fear, but better yet, that we can rest comfortably in God’s never-failing grace.

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Image of The Virgin Mary, the Physician, by the Rev. Cn. Frank Logue, Bishop-Elect of the Diocese of Georgia

Some have tried to interpret this most recent plague as God’s wrath for any number of sins.  Others have suggested that it is a sign of the apocalypse.  I wonder if some of the same people who bought so much toilet paper also thought Jesus was coming back soon? Both of these thoughts are based in an understanding of God that is tit-for-tat.  Because this happens, God will do this.  What we know about God from the Bible, and what we hear reiterated in the story of the Annunciation, is that God’s relationship with each of us is based on covenant rather than contract.  Our relationship isn’t, if we are good, God will love us, but rather, God loves us, and we react out of that love.  Mary’s favor with God led her to be able to say yes to becoming the Mother of God.  Doctors and Nurses who are beloved by God are willing to risk their lives to care for the sick and the vulnerable.  You and I, God loves us too, and out of that love, we show love for our neighbor by staying home as much as possible, so as not to share in the spread of the Coronavirus.

“Don’t be afraid, for you have found favor with God.”  I didn’t realize how much I needed those words this week.  I hope they are a source of peace for you as well.  God bless you.

God is here

One of the things that I love the most about being an Episcopalian is the rhythm of our liturgical life.  People often ask me how I don’t get bored doing the same thing day after day, week after week, but to be honest, I love the repetition.  Saying the Lord’s Prayer again and again is calming to me.  Hearing the familiar words of the Eucharistic Prayers makes me feel at home.  I can’t wait until the day we get to say them together again.  I am certain I’m not the only one who feels this way.  Over years and decades and the course of a lifetime, these ritual actions, repeated again and again, eventually write themselves in our minds and on our hearts – they become imprinted on our bones.

I learned this truth during my first summer of seminary.  One of my responsibilities during that summer of Clinical Pastoral Education was a rotation with the hospice program at a large tiered-care retirement facility.  My hospice patient was a woman who lived in the memory care wing.  The first time I went to visit her, I found her sitting on one of the couches, dressed to the nines, ready to welcome a guest into her home.  To her, the year wasn’t 2005, but 1945.  I wasn’t a chaplaincy student coming by to pray with her, but a gentlemen suitor there to take her out on a date.  We talked and laughed, and I enjoyed our time together.  As the summer went on, her condition deteriorated rapidly.  Eventually, my visits took place in her room, where she rested in a hospital bed.  As the end drew near, my colleague Peter and I took to praying and reading the Bible out loud to her.  I can still remember the moment, as I began to read the King James version of Psalm 23, when I saw her lips move.  I couldn’t hear anything, her voice was too weak, but I watched as she recited every word of the Psalm right alongside me.  She couldn’t remember her family, her own name, or even how to eat, but these ancient words of praise in the midst of anxiety and hardship were written down deep within her.

The 23rd Psalm seems to know when we need it.  It was the Psalm appointed for the Sunday after the Boston Marathon bombing and the chaotic week that followed.  It has appeared in the Lectionary during particularly trying weeks in my personal faith journey.  It is always there at the time of death.  The 23rd Psalm shows up in moments of hope and joy as well.  It was the Psalm appointed for the feast day of Mother Becca’s ordination to the priesthood, a day we weren’t quite sure would happen in the midst of what she now calls “Not Cancer.”  The 23rd Psalm is versatile.  It is able to carry some heavy burdens, and I am particularly grateful that it was assigned for us to pray through today.

On this our second of what will be quite a few Sundays of “Church at Home,” after ten straight days of new guidance, new rules, and short-lived new normals, I needed the comfort of “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.”  As the news continues to remind us that no one is exempt from the “valley of the shadow of death,” I’m finding a new and deep appreciation for the “still waters.”  As the need to come up with answers to questions I never dreamed of asking has threatened to overwhelm me, I am comforted by the promise of God’s cup that overflows.

The most profound lesson that Psalm 23 has taught me this week came as I scrambled to find some words to say to you on Thursday afternoon.  Sitting next the water heater in my basement tool-room-slash-office, with the washing machine rumbling nearby, I pulled up my go-to preaching resources.  There, on WorkingPracher.org was a post on Psalm 23 that cited James Limberg, Old Testament Professor Emeritus at Luther Seminary.  Professor Limberg noted that in the Hebrew version of Psalm 23, there are exactly twenty-six words before and after the phrase translated as “thou art with me.”[1]  Smack dab in the middle of this Psalm of comfort, the poet embedded our deepest truth, God is here.  In the midst of anxiety, disruption, pain, and fear – God is there.  In the midst of joy, laughter, excitement, and ease – God is there. God is always in the very middle of it all.

We hear the same message in our Gospel lesson for this morning.  In the middle of the mess, God, in the person of Jesus, is there.  In the middle of a debate over whether someone’s infirmity was the result of sin, Jesus was there, not to settle the argument, but to show how misguided it was.  The man born blind’s problem wasn’t that he was blind.  His most immediate problem was the bigotry and toxic theology that kept people from reaching out to him in love.  So, Jesus stepped into the middle, got his hands literally dirty and figuratively unclean, and violated the laws of the Sabbath to heal the man.  When the debate shifted and the man, momentarily restored to community, was once more exiled from his family and Synagogue, Jesus showed up again, this time to welcome him into relationship with the Savior of the world.  No form of disconnection is beyond God’s capacity to show up and be present to us in our need.

In a Pastoral Directive issued on Friday, Bishop White called for the suspension of all in-person gatherings until further notice.  The Bishop went on to say that we should be prepared for this to be our reality through the end of May.  That’s a really long time to be apart from one another.  For those of us who aren’t tech savvy and can’t livestream a worship service, who can’t feel connected when they see the likes, hearts, and comments coming up in real time, the distance and isolation from your church family can feel overwhelming.  Even at home, surrounded by my own family, there have been moments this week when I have felt like the man born blind, all alone as the world swirls around me.  Thankfully, those moments haven’t lasted too long, and I’ve been able to remember, with regularity, that God is here, right smack dab in the middle of it all.

Isolation is hard, even if it is what we need in this moment, but isolation doesn’t mean you are all alone.  God is here.  God is right there in your living room, and in this moment, the Church has a unique opportunity to be there as well.  I believe that we are being called to take our role as the Body of Christ more seriously than ever, and to be right in the middle of the messiness.  Committed to fulfilling our mission in new and different ways, Christ Church will be present with you, even in our isolation.  The Staff and Vestry have divvied up a call list, and will be checking in with every member of the congregation weekly to make sure we stay connected.  We will continue to offer worship online for those who can connect, and we are developing ways for all of us to worship God, to learn and grow, and to radiate God’s love, even as we are stuck in our houses, especially during the Holy Week to come.

Thankfully, our liturgical tradition means many of you have some go-to prayers already written on your hearts and in your bones.  You can connect with the ever-present God anywhere and anytime, but in this time of isolation, as the Body of Christ in Bowling Green, Kentucky, Christ Episcopal Church is with you.  The waters won’t always be still.  The pastures won’t always be green.  But the Lord, the Good Shepherd, the Comforter, and Christ’s Church will continue to be with you this day and always.  Amen.

[1] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=4385

Don’t Fall for It

Lin-Manual Miranda’s musical Hamilton is as popular in my household as it seems to be around the globe.  Despite its popularity and the fact that the touring group came through Nashville last month, we have not scraped together the two-grand it would cost for our family of four to see it.  We’re very much looking forward to the film adaptation.  That doesn’t mean that we don’t have most of the songs memorized.  While not 100% age appropriate for our kids, they found the soundtrack and have been singing every non-swear word to every song for more than a year now.  One our favorites is “Aaron Burr Sir,” which depicts the moment when Alexander Hamilton first meets Aaron Burr, who (spoiler alert) will one day be the man who kills Hamilton in a duel.  In the song, Hamilton seeks out Burr to talk about his desire to attend Princeton in an accelerated program, which Burr had just recently accomplished.  Upon finding out that both he and Burr were orphans, Hamilton exclaims, “You’re an orphan? Of course, I’m an orphan.  [Gosh], I wish there was a war then we could prove that we’re worth more than anyone bargained for.”  In the song, Burr, only about 20 at the time, is already a polished politician.  While in real life he was active in the Revolutionary War effort, in the musical, Burr is depicted as a quiet, behind the scenes, negotiator type.  He encourages Hamilton to keep quiet, “fools who run their mouths off wind up dead.”  A rousing pub song by some of the revolution’s key players interrupts their meeting, until the song comes to an end with Hamilton bluntly asking the young lawyer, “If you stand for nothing Burr, what’ll you fall for?”

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Hamilton’s question is one that has been asked over and over again in so many different ways throughout human history.  Life in America in 2020 has many of us asking this same question.  The Bible has a lot to say on the question of what it is that we are called to stand for.  In fact, all of our lessons for today invite us to think long and hard about what we stand for so that we might be better prepared to not fall for whatever our favorite outside force, false god, or social media feed might have us believe.  These lessons invite us to make a choice between the kingdom of God and the kingdoms of this world.  Like it was for Aaron Burr, making the choice between these two kingdoms can be quite challenging.

Standing near the edge of the Jordan River, just outside the Promised Land after forty years of wandering in the wilderness, Moses spoke to the children of Abraham.  After years of teaching, leading, and settling disputes, the now 120-year-old Moses is ready to impart his final wisdom upon God’s people.  Moses knows that he won’t be entering the land with them.  He knows that they have been prone to wander from the commandments of God.  He knows that they will need all the help they can get to stand firm in their faith when they come into this land thought to be flowing with milk and honey, and so he says, quite simply, “You’ve got a choice to make between life and death.”  Life is the way of love.  Life is available to those who put the love of God above all else, who walk in the way of Lord, who obey the commandments, and who follow the Torah.  Death, on the other hand, comes to those who fall for the allure of false gods, who choose the love of self over the love of neighbor, and who seek power, privilege, and prestige.  “What will you stand for,” Moses asks, “life or death?”

Rarely does the Psalm seem to fit in the with the overarching theme of our lessons, but even here, the psalmist is clear that those who stand in God’s commandments will find joy, while those who fail to keep the law will be forsaken.

In his first letter to the Church in Corinth, Paul is forced to respond to several conflicts in the life of the church.  In the midst of their fighting with one another, Paul writes to remind them of the faith upon which they first learned to stand in the light of Christ.  He calls them infants in Christ – they have forgotten how to stand in love, and instead are crawling around in anger and bitterness.  It isn’t about Apollos or Paul, Paul writes.  They are not the ones in whom your faith stands, but rather, it is in God alone that we are able stand.  They might have planted the seed, or tended the soil, or watered the earth, but it is God who made each Christian in Corinth to stand upright, to grow in faith, and to produce the fruit of righteousness.

Finally, then, we come to a rather challenging portion of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.  Jesus takes many well-known laws and turns them on their heads.  “You have heard it said, ‘you shall not murder,’ but I say to you, if you insult a brother or sister, you are liable.”  “You have heard it said, ‘you shall not commit adultery,’ but I say to you, if you look at someone lustfully, you have already committed adultery.”  “You have heard it said, ‘you shall divorce your wife by decree,’ but I say to you, if you divorce someone out of convenience, you have sinned.”  “You have heard it said, ‘you shall not swear falsely,’ but I say to you, don’t swear an oath at all, let your yes be yes and your no be no.”  I can’t know for sure, but I’m guessing that everyone in this room has fallen short of the ethical standard that Jesus sets for us here.  Jesus lifts the bar so high as to be impossible to achieve, which is the whole point.  As followers of Jesus, the first step toward standing tall in our faith is recognizing that we are totally incapable of doing it on our own.

History has shown, over thousands of years, that left to our own devices, human beings will fall for anything that makes us feel good.  We are suckers for instant gratification.  Each time your phone dings to let you know someone liked a photo, your brain shoots off a hit of dopamine, which makes you feel good, and eventually, it happens enough that you become addicted, seeking that rush that comes with each notification.  We’ve fallen for it.  The twenty-four-hour news channel of your choosing is there to make you angry or scared, which again, releases chemicals in your brain that over time you begin to think you can’t live without.  That chemical addiction keeps more eyeballs glued to the TV for longer periods of time, which allows them to sell ad space for more money.  We’ve fallen for it.  The entire advertising industry is built upon the reality that human beings can be convinced that we don’t have enough of whatever it is they are selling and that only by buying, drinking, eating, coveting what they have to offer will we ever be truly happy.  We’ve fallen for it.  Unable to stand, infants in the faith, too many of us spend our days watching the news and crawling around social media lobbing insults at each other.

Jesus invites us to stand up.  Better yet, Jesus takes us by the hand and helps us to stand, and then to walk, and then to work, building up the Kingdom of Heaven on earth by choosing life, and obeying the commandments of loving God and loving our neighbors.  So, what do you stand for?  Is it the cross of Christ or have you fallen for whatever it is that the world is selling these days?  Choose life.  Choose the way of love.  Choose to stand with Christ.  Standing with Jesus is so much more rewarding than crawling around in the messiness of anger, fear, and vitriol.  The Psalmist is no Lin-Manual Miranda, but he does sum up the reward of our call to stand with God quite well, “Happy are they whose way is blameless, who walk in the law of the Lord!”  Amen.

Losing our Saltiness

Salt was way more important in the time of Jesus than it is today.  Thanks to refrigeration, we are not dependent on salt to preserve meat in order to not die from food-borne illnesses.  More so, the health community is quite aware that too much salt is detrimental to our health.  As one with high blood pressure, I can assure you, I’ve heard all about salts impacts.  Still, salt is ubiquitous on dining room tables in homes, restaurants, and cafeterias.  Salt is so commonly used that some countries mandated that iodine be added to it to prevent intellectual and developmental disabilities.  Between 1990 and 2006, thanks to a concerted effort on behalf of the World Summit for Children, iodized salt usage increased from 25% to 66% of households, and the worlds IQ rose because of it.  The course has begun to reverse, however, as pink Himalayan salt has become the rage.  While some pink salt may contain trace amounts of iodine naturally, the general consensus seems to be that if you want to avoid an iodine deficiency, you should look for white salt.

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Long, probably unnecessary introduction aside, what’s really fascinating to me in the move toward pink salt is that it has been shown to have a statistically significant lower level of saltiness.  That is to say, if you are using pink salt to season a dish, you’ll need to use more of it to achieve the same flavor profile.  You with me?

When Jesus makes the somewhat absurd claim that salt can lose its taste, my mind was immediately taken to pink salt.  It is pretty.  It looks great in instagram photos of you dinner table.  It is suggested that it has all kinds of health benefits, but it lacks two very important things – depth of flavor and added iodine.  The lack of flavor is inherent in the makeup of pink salt.  The lack of iodine is a result of outside forces.  As I think about the life of faith and how disciples of Jesus might lose their saltiness, I would venture to stretch this metaphor a bit further.  Disciples who have lost their taste seem to be missing both internal and external components as well.  To lose our fundamental identity as the salt of the world often comes from a lack of community.  Iodine infusion for salty Christians comes by way of regular participation in worship, communal Bible study, and corporate acts of compassion.  When we remove ourselves from a community of faith, we lose part of what it means to be the salt of the earth.

Furthermore, when these external forces are removed, it becomes easier and easier to craft God in our own image.  Less and less focused on what it means to be a Christian for the world, we get so focused on what it means to be a Christian for ourselves that we begin to lose our connection with God through the indwelling of the Spirit.  Not having any kinds of checks and balances on our faith, we tend to focus on the wrong things, and, it seems fair to say, run the risk of coming nothing more than superficial Christians.  It might look good on the outside through an elaborate series of filters, but the true purpose of our saltiness is lost.

Like I said, salt isn’t as important today as it was in Jesus’ time, so you’ll have to forgive the shoehorning of this metaphor for nearly 600 words, but I do think there is something there for us to consider.  What may have seemed absurd 20 years ago – that salt could lose its most basic value – has come to fruition in the explosion of pink salt.  It might seems absurd that disciples of Jesus could lose their saltiness, but I don’t think so.  I think it is a real risk for all of us who claim to follow Jesus.  Staying connected to community and listening for the Holy Spirit in context is important to the ongoing development of the life of faith.

The Presentation

There are only a small handful of Feasts that take precedence over a regular Sunday celebration.  A couple of them – Easter, Pentecost, and Trinity Sunday – regularly fall on a Sunday.  One, Ascension Day, can never be a Sunday as forty days after Easter Day will always add up to Thursday.  All Saints’ Day can be celebrated twice, but it is only Christmas, Epiphany, Holy Name (January 1), the Presentation (February 2), and the Transfiguration (August 6), will bump a regularly scheduled Sunday.  This week, we have a rare double Feast as the secular festival of Super Bowl LIV happens to fall on the Sunday of the Presentation of our Lord Jesus Christ in the Temple – a name that just rolls off the tongue.

The Feast of the Presentation, while not often celebrated on the Lord’s Day is still a pretty popular story in the minds of many Episcopalians.  Anyone who grew up going to an Episcopal Church Camp could probably still recite the Song of Simeon from Compline by heart.  Simeon’s song sums up not only the hope of an old man who longed desperately for the redemption of Israel, but it strikes deep chords within all of us who are looking forward to and working toward the Kingdom of Heaven.  It is through the light to the Gentiles and the glory of God’s people that we as Christians have come to know not just our salvation, but the redemption of the world.

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What gets less play, because her words were not recorded, is the prophet Anna who, Luke tells us was also waiting for the restoration of her beloved Jerusalem.  Upon seeing the babe, she too couldn’t help but express joy, praise God, and tell anyone who would listen what the birth of this particular child would mean for the whole world.

While the focus in the name of this Feast is the ritual act of presenting Jesus at the Temple for purification, what really stands out to me this morning is the faithfulness of Simeon and Anna, and their willingness to share the hope that was within them.  Too often in our worship, Episcopalians focus on the ritual acts, forgetting that the Eucharist is meant to nourish us spiritually that we might go forth to share the love of God and the Good News of salvation in Christ with everyone we meet.