The Busyness of Grief

       During my nearly fifteen years of ordained ministry, I’ve been honored to walk with dozens of families through the process of grieving the death of a loved one.  I’ve watched spouses, children, parents, grandchildren, and even grandparents ping pong their way through the stages of grief.  Some remain stuck somewhere along the journey.  Others, thankfully, have found acceptance and peace on the other side.  Everybody grieves differently, but there are a few hallmarks of grief.  As Elisabeth Kübler-Ross first posited back in the late 1960s, we all experience, at some point and to varying degrees, denial, anger, bargaining, and depression.  Less commonly discussed, but true to my anecdotal experience of somewhere near 100 funerals, is busyness.

       The busyness of grief is real, and it is something the Church has been excelling at since the very beginning.  In our modern reality, a death activates all kinds of work.  There’s the clergy meeting with the family to offer pastoral care and to plan a service.  The organist and choir get to work practicing their music.  Administrative staff work on bulletins.  The Daughters of the King get busy with plans for visitation coffee and snacks.  The funeral committee works on the reception.  Friends and neighbors might start preparing meals.  Those closest to the deceased have the most work to do.  There are phone calls to make, documents to find, services to plan, travel, and any number of other details to iron out.

       The Passion narratives in all four Gospels show us that the busyness of grief is nothing new.  All four include details about rushing against the clock to retrieve the body of Jesus, secure a tomb, anoint his body, and lay him to rest.  Several also tell of the women who prepared more spices and oils to give Jesus a fuller, proper burial, after the Sabbath was over.  As is always the case in death, there was a flurry of activity in the minutes and hours that immediately followed.  In John’s Gospel, the version we hear each Good Friday, the spotlight is focused on two rather surprising characters, Joseph of Arimathea, and Nicodemus.  Two “secret” disciples arrive at the hour of death while the eleven Apostles are nowhere to be found.  Joseph whom we’ve never met before, is, apparently, known to Pilate and a very rich and influential man who was able to secure Jesus’ body before the sunset came and he would have to remain hanging on a cross through the Sabbath.  In other versions we learn that it was his tomb into which Jesus would be laid.  Nicodemus makes his third appearance in John’s Gospel.  We first saw him approach Jesus under the cover of darkness, and to him Jesus uttered those famous words, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only-begotten Son that all who believe in him shall not perish but have ever lasting life.”  A brief cameo comes in chapter seven, when the religious authorities first try to arrest Jesus, but it is here where we get a fuller understanding of Nicodemus, a Pharisee who also believed in Jesus, brought with him one hundred pounds of oils and spices to anoint Jesus for a hasty burial.  It was their busyness that brings us to the end of the Good Friday story, where we are invited to catch our breath, to watch, and to wait.

The busyness of grief can be gift in those early days of loss.  Rather than meeting grief head-on, like a freight train, the distraction of work allows us to ease our way into grief.  For us, some two-thousand years later, reading the story from an ancient text, the end of the busyness and the beginning of grief seem to come quite quickly.  We don’t have time to bake cookies and make some tea.  No, the seeming finality of Jesus’ life and ministry hits us like a ton of bricks.  Except, of course, we know the rest of the story.  It would be easy to skip over the difficult emotions of Good Friday and Holy Saturday, but I would encourage you not to get caught up in the busyness of the next few days, but rather to sit in the grief.  Try to understand the hopelessness of the disciples.  Try to feel the anxiety of Joseph and Nicodemus.  Try to appreciate the urgency of the women.  Try to feel the pain of Mary.

While we don’t re-crucify Jesus here today, we would do well to take some time to experience the grief of Good Friday.  The pain felt by human beings who were close to Jesus.  The forsakenness that Jesus knew too well.  Even the heartache that God felt at the death of love on the cross.  Anger, denial, bargaining, depression – they’re all there, if we look for them – and if we take the space to experience them over the next 36 hours, we can begin to know more fully what God really did for humanity, and for each of us, in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  It would be easy to skip past the grief, especially after two really hard years, but I pray that today, you’ll allow yourself some time to feel the pain of Christ’s death and to come to know that the very God of the Universe experienced that same pain.  In Good Friday, we come to understand that God knows hurt and heartache, even as God also knows the hope that sits just beyond the horizon.  Amen.

Palm Sunday Whiplash

       I have always struggled with Palm Sunday.  Theologically, liturgically, and practically, every year, Palm Sunday feels like whiplash to me.  The problem is right there at the top of your bulletin.  While we call it “Palm Sunday” colloquially, in truth today is “The Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday.” We might walk into it with an expectation of only hearing the shouts of joyful Hosannas, but the reality is that before it’s over, the Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ is going to catch us all short.  One year, back in Alabama, Keith and I made the decision to avoid it all together.  We just didn’t read the Passion narrative, and instead invited everyone at Saint Paul’s to join us as we walked the whole week with Jesus.  Of course, that didn’t happen, and the vast majority of the congregation came to Easter services having not heard all that lead up to the miracle of the resurrection.  For a few years, we skipped the Passion Gospel in its normal spot, went through the whole service, and then returned to the spot where the Palm Sunday liturgy started to hear it at the very end.  I found that experience to be quite moving.  It gave enough space between the “Hosannas” and the “Crucify Hims” to not make my neck as sore, and, until two years ago, I would have told you it was my preferred pattern for The Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday.

       After two years of disrupted Holy Weeks due to COVID, I am now fully committed to the Palm Sunday liturgy as it is printed in the Prayer Book.  I’ve come to realize that the whiplash is a necessary part of Holy Week.  It helps us in our own journey with Jesus to see that the same crowds that shouted “Hosanna” would, in no time at all, be crying out “Crucify him.”  Each of us has those same crowds within us, alternating between the “Hosannas” of living into the vision of the Kingdom of Heaven that Jesus brought to earth and the “Crucify hims” of a life lived in fear, self-preservation, and sin.  The reason that The Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday makes us so uncomfortable is because it is the story of our own lives – vacillating, sometimes minute by minute, between joyfully following Christ and selfishly following our own desires.  And so, at the entrance of the nave, in the moment of transition between joy and sorrow, we stop and pray, that this disjointed path we walk from a triumphal entry on Palm Sunday to trudging toward death on the cross on Good Friday might be for us the way of life and peace.  In that prayer, we confront those two very distinct parts within ourselves, seeking to follow Christ all the way to the cross, yet knowing that like Peter and the rest of the disciples, it is very likely we will stop short in fear, in discomfort, in hope of another way.

       For the first time in three years, we have the chance to walk the Way of the Cross together.  From waving palm branches this morning, to the institution of the Lord’s Supper, foot washing, and the stripping of the altar on Maundy Thursday, to somber prayers before the cross on Good Friday, to the Great Noise and the joyful proclamation of Easter at the Vigil, to brass, eggs, and alleluias on Easter morning, I hope that all of you will take the opportunity, in-person or online, to walk with us through the full range of emotions that this week will bring.  If the last two years have taught me anything, however, it’s that this just might not be possible, for any number of reasons.  If you can’t walk to and through the tomb with us this week, I hope that the whiplash of this morning will be enough for you to feel the emotional roller coaster that Holy Week invites us to experience.  I pray that as the week goes on, you’ll think back on the joyful “hosannas”, the frightful “crucify hims”, and the sorrowful last words of Jesus from the cross and see in them the very path of life, holding them in your hearts with joyful expectation of what is to come next Sunday as we celebrate the resurrection.

       Dear friends in Christ, this is The Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday and the entrance into a most Holy Week.  I pray that you might find a way, anyway, to walk in the way of the cross this week, and that through the grace of God, it might be for you, nothing less than the way of life and peace.  Amen.

Spiritual Turkey Crap

       This week, my Facebook memories were full of pictures and reflections on life in the early days of COVID shutdown.  There were photos of Rick and Linda’s earliest live-stream setup right there in the crossing.  There was a post from outside Kroger, waiting with 25 others for it to open at 7am so we could buy toilet paper.  My favorite was the whiteboard in the Conference Room with a 90-day plan to reopen and blow the doors off with brass at Pentecost.  Oh, March 2020 Steve, how naïve you were.  This year, unlike last March when these memories rolled through, I found myself feeling a little bit nostalgic for how life slowed down, frustrated with how long it has taken us to get beyond COVID’s disruptions, and hopeful for what the future might hold.  That hope is built upon our ongoing work to bring this parish back to its active and full life.

       Of course, starting back from a standstill takes a while, and it requires us to use muscles that we haven’t used in a long time.  Like getting back into exercise, we are slowing building, being very careful not to hurt ourselves.  For example, the Alleluia banner that will beautifully adorn the nave on Easter Day, still isn’t fully colored in.  We haven’t been stressing about that because people are back in the building most days, and we can get some help from adults who like to color.  Monday night, I got a text from Karen Crabtree as EfM was wrapping up.  Marker had bled through the paper and onto the conference table that was just refinished last year.  I think most of us know Karen well enough to know that she was feeling a little anxious about the mess.   She had checked several times to be sure that the markers weren’t bleeding through, and yet, it happened.  My response, from the comfort of my own living room, was more joyful, “It means our church is alive.  I’ll take messy tables every day of the week,” I wrote back.  Karen, in her wisdom, quickly responded, “Life is messy.”

       Gosh if that isn’t true.  Life, in all its shapes and forms, is messy.  From birth to death and everything in between, life is messy, and while there are several different lessons we could draw from our Gospel lesson this morning, this week, my take is that Jesus knows all too well just how messy life can be.  The lesson begins with a classic question of theodicy.  Why do bad things happen?  More specifically, why do bad things happen to good people?  The Galileans whom Pilate had killed were offering their sacrifices to God.  How could God not have spared their lives?  The eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell, why them?  In our context, I can’t help but think about the 475 families whose homes saw significant damage during the December tornado.  Were they somehow deserving of the heartache and headache while two blocks away, I had internet back the next morning?  Jesus won’t even entertain the question.  Focusing on what others did or didn’t do to deserve the hardships in their lives is futile, Jesus says.  His response is simply a call to repentance lest we too should die unprepared.  If life is as fragile as it seems given the stories of the Galileans killed by Pilate and the 18 crushed by the tower of Siloam, then we would do well to get to work producing the fruit of repentance: showing signs of a life committed to the Kingdom of God rather than self-preservation.

       In typical Jesus’ fashion, he makes his point by way of a parable about something in nature.  This time, it is a fig tree that after three years of growth, has yet to produce fruit.  The landowner, growing tired with a tree that is at least two harvests behind schedule, calls on the gardener to cut it down so that it no longer wastes the good soil in which it was planted.  The gardener, the one who has been tending to this particular tree for three years, knows its potential.  The gardener can see that it needs conditions that are just a little bit better than the other trees around it, and so they ask the landowner for a stay of execution.  Give it one more year.  I’ll dig around it, give it plenty of manure, and hopefully next season it will produce fruit.  The gardener put their money on dirt, manure, and sweat to bring about fullness of life – albeit messy, messy life – to that fig tree.

       I learned a lot about this kind of messy life back in 2008.  The grass in south Alabama is not like the beautiful, lush lawns we have up here.  Zoysia and Centipede might grow in the sandy soil, but they are rough, ugly, and hard to maintain.  So, when my parents moved down there, into a brand-new house with a freshly sodded lawn, my dad wanted to everything he could to maintain it.  He asked around at the Ace Hardware and learned that the best fertilizer he could use on the garbage grass in his yard was turkey manure.  Early in the growing season, so like February in south Alabama, dad spread a few bags of turkey poop on his lawn, watered it per the instructions, and waited for it to do its work.  What the helpful folks at Ace failed to mention was that no matter the season down there, the sun is really, really hot.  Do you know what turkey manure does when it is met by the really hot sun?  It stinks.  It stinks to high heaven.  It makes you want to sell your house and move a thousand miles away; it smells so bad.  While you didn’t want anything to do with that yard through most of the spring, it was as lush and as green as a builders’ grade centipede lawn could be.

Life is messy, and the things we use to bring about abundant life are even messier.  When Jesus uses this parable of a fig tree surrounded by manure, he is affirming the messiness of life and giving us permission to live into the mess.  Like our parish restarting after COVID shutdown, each of us have, in our own lives, gone through fits and starts in our discipleship.  Sometimes, fruit is being produced with ease, but often, our own spiritual lives need to be tended to with great care.  Sometimes, with just a little advice of the helpful folks at ACE, we can make these adjustments on our own.  At other times, like the fig tree, we need someone outside of ourselves to roll up their sleeves, offer their time and talent, and be unafraid to get dirty.

That second route is, I think, what congregations are here for.  We are here to support one another.  By we, I don’t just mean the clergy.  Nor do I mean just the staff.  Nor do I just mean those who are seen as leaders.  It is the job of all of us to support one another in the messiness of life; to pray for each other; and to encourage one another.  It’s messy, this caring for each other thing, but it is the gift of community.  Sometimes, marker will leak through.  Sometimes, the turkey manure might try to stink us out of relationship, but as good gardeners in God’s Kingdom, we are committed to sticking it out in the hopes of producing fruit that endures and becoming the beloved community that Jesus came to build.  Life is messy, but thankfully, we have help in each other to carry us through.  Amen.

Spiritual Eye Cream

       As you can probably tell by how I dress, how rarely I get my hair cut, and how often my beard gets unkempt, I’m not super keen on paying a lot of attention to my looks.  I would much rather be in a hat, hoodie, and a pair of jeans than anything else in all the world.  That said, I have subscribed to one secret beauty regimen during the dog days of COVIDtide that I feel like I need to confess to you.  As we are all well aware, this long pandemic has been extremely challenging on us all.  Personally, in my role as dad, occasional homeschooler, and rector, I’ve experienced my own fair share of stress, anxiety, and grief, and sleep hasn’t always been easy to come by. By the time the fall of 2020 rolled around, I woke up each morning looking like I had gone eight rounds with George Foreman.  I was, in the language of our Gospel lesson, weighed down with sleep, and my eyes showed it, when I found myself drawn to an ad for Eye Savior soothing eye treatment.  I already had a Lord and Savior but if something could resurrect the bags under my eyes it was worth a try.  Now, I use it every morning, and I feel like I can at least pretend that I slept well the night before.

       My Eye Savior routine came to mind on Thursday as what was supposed to be our annual diocesan clergy quiet day went from in-person to Zoom and, at least for me, was routinely interrupted by news stories coming out of Ukraine as Russian missiles, bombs, and tanks made their way into the country.  COVID-19, murder hornets (remember those), tornadoes, and now war in Europe, it’s no wonder we’re all exhausted.  It’s a miracle we’re not all zombies walking around in some permanent state between sleeping and awake, but we could all probably use a little Eye Savior at this point.

       For most of this week, I had been thinking I’d preach about the conversation that went on between Jesus, Moses, and Elijah this morning.  I had all kinds of deep thoughts about what Luke means by using the word exodus, which is translated as “departure” in the NSRV we heard this morning, but none of that seems to matter now.  Now, I’m way more interested in Peter, James, and John who, Luke tells us, were “weighed down with sleep.”  The Transfiguration story is told in all three synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, but only Luke includes this detail about the sleepy disciples.  The word that is translated as “weighed down,” is bareo.  It appears only once in each of the same three gospels.  In Luke, it is here at the Transfiguration.  In Matthew and Mark, it occurs on Maundy Thursday, as Jesus and his disciples go to the Garden of Gethsemane.  When Jesus went off to pray, the disciples’ eyes became heavy or weighed down.

       In all three instances, Jesus knows way more about what is going on than the disciples who are with him, and because of that, the disciples almost miss what’s happening due to sheer exhaustion.  I’ve never felt more like the disciples than I do right now.  I’m sure that God knows way more about what’s happening than I ever could, and I’m also afraid that my exhaustion will mean I’m going to miss something – possibly something really important.  What’s super interesting to me is that here in Luke’s Gospel, scholars can’t agree on whether the disciples actually fell asleep or not.  The verb is a passive participle in aorist tense, which people way smarter than me say can mean that they did or didn’t actually succumb to the heaviness of sleep.

       I’d like to imagine they did.  Here’s how I think the story goes, given my rudimentary understanding of Greek and the timeline of event.  Peter, James, and John went up the mountain with Jesus.  As is his wont, Jesus went off to pray by himself, and as was theirs, the disciples, exhausted from the hike, sat down to “rest their eyes.”  As Jesus prayed, the appearance of his face changed and his clothes became dazzling white, but the disciples didn’t notice, until suddenly, the three were jarred awake by the sound of voices.  Moses and Elijah had joined the now transfigured Jesus in his radiant glory, and they were discussing his exodus, which he was going to accomplish in Jerusalem.  Peter, still not exactly sure of what was happening, exclaimed to Jesus, “Master, it is good that we were here to see this.  Let’s commemorate this miraculous event by building three booths.”  Before he could finish his disconnected thought, a cloud of darkness enveloped the whole group and the disciples trembled with fear, when a voice came from the cloud and said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him.”  Just as fast as it had arrived, the cloud was gone, and so too were Elijah and Moses.  Peter, James, and John were so awestruck by what they had experienced, they said nothing to anyone.

       Did you catch what happened?  If the disciples did fall asleep, or even if they were “resting their eyes” like I do every Sunday after church, they were brought back to awareness by something.  God wouldn’t let miss out on what was happening.  The whole universe made sure that they experienced the Transfiguration, overheard the conversation between Jesus, Moses, and Elijah, and were attuned to the voice from the cloud.  In my tired state, nervous that I’m going to miss something important, I take great solace in this.  For those who are paying attention to what God is doing in the world, God will make sure you’re awake when you need to be.  In fact, I think that might be what this whole season of Epiphany has been about.  God is going to show up in all kinds of ways, and God will make darn sure you’re awake to see it.

For some, God’s presence is most tangible in the quietness of centering prayer.  For others, God is in the wonder of a mountain stream.  Still others find God when they roll up their sleeves and get to work on a Habitat house or packing a hot lunch or laying down to try to sleep on a cot in the basement with Room in the Inn.  No matter where you experience God, God will make sure you are fully present.  Even if you fall asleep, God will make sure you get the full experience.  During our online retreat on Thursday, I heard an older priest say that the Desert Fathers used to teach that if you fell asleep while praying, it was a gift from God.  Maybe God offers some soothing eye cream for when you wake up in prayer as well.  We are all bone tired, and if you are weighed down with sleep and need to rest, that’s ok.  Take your time.  Get some sleep.  It isn’t very Lenten but maybe even pamper yourself just a little bit.  No matter what, rest secure, knowing that God will make sure you’re ready for whatever work there is to do, whatever epiphany there is to see, and whatever blessing there is to come. Amen.

A Sermon on and of Level Places

       Tradition tells us that the author of Luke’s Gospel was a physician from the Greek city of Antioch, situated in ancient Syria.  Given his obsession with level roads, however, I’m beginning to think that maybe he was a Dollar General executive who had his teeth rattled during his commute down I-65 every day.  This isn’t our first foray into level places with Luke.  Way back in Advent, we heard the story of John the Baptist coming onto the scene.  In it, Luke uses Isaiah’s prophecy of a great leveling for the Israelites living in exile in Babylon to describe what John came to do.  There will be no more desolate valleys, all will be filled in.  The haughtiness of the mountains will be humbled.  Every path will be made straight.  Even the rough patches, potholes, and deep ruts will be made smooth.  In Luke’s understanding of what God is all about, this leveling of the world makes it possible for all people, from all over the globe and every walk of life, to make their way to Jerusalem and the final victory of God.

       Fast forward a few months, in real time and in the Biblical narrative, and this morning, we hear another prophetic sermon on a similar theme coming from Jesus.  Often referred to as the “Sermon on the Plain”, I’d like to propose we retitle it “The Sermon on and of a Level Place.”  Either way, it is one of the longest recorded teaching discourses we have from Jesus, and the first chance he has to impart wisdom on the newly formed band of twelve disciples.  Having just spent the night in prayer atop a mountain, Jesus comes down to a level place, names the twelve, and immediately begins to teach them (and anyone who would listen) the basics of what the Kingdom of God will look like in reality.  The scene is a chaotic one.  There are people everywhere.  Jesus had spent the day before healing people, and the crowds that morning were swollen with people just hoping that some kind of power might fling off of him in their direction.  He doesn’t spend much time switching gears. His goal that morning was simply to lay the foundation for what he was hoping to inaugurate.

       I’ve mentioned in sermons before that Jesus, while a perfect Messiah, wasn’t a great church growth guru.  We see that again here, as the massive crowd pressed in on him, and he began to preach, saying, “Blessed are you who are poor.”  I can imagine several members of the crowd shifting uncomfortably on their feet.  “Blessed are you who are hungry… who weep… when people hate… exclude… revile… and defame you.”  I’m sure there were many in the crowd who knew hunger, poverty, anxiety, and exclusion, and I’m equally sure very few of them would consider themselves blessed.  He goes on, “Woe to you who are rich, full, and laughing now.  Woe to you when people speak well of you.”  There were certainly some in the crowd, even among the twelve he had just named as Apostles, who had experienced abundance and joy and were equally confused about what seemed like a curse coming their way.

       The opening lines of the Sermon on the Plain are, admittedly, pretty intense, but they are not without purpose, and they fit perfectly within the worldview of Luke’s Gospel and his affinity for level places.  We must be careful not spiritualize these words to assuage our guilt.  It would be easy to run over to the Matthew’s Gospel, climb up from the Level Place and into the more comfortable and familiar Sermon on the Mount, and rest as Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” but that isn’t what he says to us this morning.  He simply says, “Blessed are the poor.”  It would be easy to look at the big picture and assume that Jesus just means that one day, after the resurrection, the poor will inherit the Kingdom of God, the hungry will be filled, and those who weep will find joy.  If only those who suffer are patient, they will get their reward, someday.  The Church has teamed up with the powers-that-be and used this passage to pacify the poor while it enriched itself on far too many occasions.  It would be even easier to look at the woes and rationalize our way out of categories like rich and full, so that we might catch an easy blessing and avoid an uncomfortable woe, but that doesn’t quite work either.

       Instead, we must take this Sermon on the Plain at face value, in the context of the themes of Luke’s gospel, and see that the Kingdom of Heaven that Jesus is envisioning here is the same one that God promised through Isaiah and John the Baptist.  It is the world as God intended it in creation, where there are no desolate valleys, all will be filled in.  The haughtiness of the mountains will be humbled.  Every path will be made straight.  Even the rough patches, potholes, and deep ruts will be made smooth.  Here in his Sermon on a Level Place, Jesus anticipates a world made up only of Level Places.

       While I was on vacation last week, inside a beautiful, seaside resort surrounded by walls to keep the effects of generational poverty and Colonialism at bay, sitting by a pool that featured two water slides and a lazy river, waiting on our server, Kermit, who rode a bus an hour each way to serve drinks to relatively rich people from around the globe thirteen days out of every fourteen, to come back with my pina colada, I passed the time reading a book.  In an unintentionally ironic move, I was reading How to be Perfect: The Correct Answer to Every Moral Question by Michael Schur, creator of shows like The Good Place, Parks and Recreation, and Brooklyn Nine-Nine.  It’s a book on ethics, written by a comedy writer, and I highly recommend it.  Anyway, in his chapter on Aristotle, Schur translates eudaimonia, the Greek word that Aristotle used to describe the end goal of human existence, not as “happiness” as many modern English translators have, but as “flourishing.”

       Immediately, I was transported to several of the meetings we’ve had with our City Shapers cohort where we’ve discussed what it means for our entire community to flourish. What City Shapers, Aristotle, and, I believe, the blessings and woes in the sermon on the plain have in common is the understanding that flourishing, the telos, or end goal of all humanity, what Jesus would call “blessedness,” only happens in a world of balance: a level place wherein all thrive, and no one has too much, and no one has too little.  Luke’s Jesus invites us to work on filling in the gaps.  Jesus doesn’t go so far as to hand us a shovel but is clear that those of us who live in the luxury of the hills, dangerously close to woe territory, ought to get to work leveling out the playing field, working toward a more just society, and helping to smooth out the valleys that our neighbors live in every day.  In his Sermon on and of a Level Place, Jesus calls on all his would-be disciples, us included, to build a world in which all are thriving, all are well fed, and all find joy.  It is only in the level places that all can truly be blessed.  Amen.

Never Stop Waiting Tables

A sermon preached at the ordination of Billy Adams, Ken Casey, and Pete Womack to the Sacred Order of Deacons.

       Unless you were some super cool lifeguard at Kentucky Kingdom, I think most people believe that their earliest jobs are some of the hardest on earth.  That’s why so many “entry level” jobs have dictums associated with them.  Retail workers are quick to suggest that everyone should work retail one December, just to see what it is like.  I’m sure that everyone who has ever worked as a counselor at All Saints’ thinks it is a job everyone else in the world should do at least once.  I am a firm believer that every human being should have to wait tables for six months before they are allowed to go to college or start a career.

I was about twenty when I got my first job waiting tables.  It was at Garfield’s, a hotel restaurant inside the Eden Resort back in Lancaster, PA.  Garfield’s is a quirky place.  Back around the turn of the century, Garfield’s was known for three things: crab cakes, made with lump crab meat hand-picked by a man named Carlos; $4.99 chicken pot pie Monday – a favorite among young Mennonite couples; and the totally random Pizza Hut lunch buffet right in the middle of the restaurant.  At the time, the owner of the Eden Resort was such a huge fan of Pizza Hut pizza that he bought himself a franchise so that he could eat it whenever he wanted, and to help pay for it, he used Pizza Hut pizza to stock a buffet for his hotel.  Being a hotel restaurant, Garfield’s was open 365 days a year.  We served Thanksgiving dinner from 11am until 9pm.  Christmas Day was a set menu all day long.  Even now, the most money I’ve ever made in a single day was Christmas Day 2001 when I worked a double shift, noon until 8pm, and brought home more than a thousand dollars.

The money in waiting tables isn’t bad, but it is hard earned.  It is a physically demanding job with lots of walking and lifting. It is mentally taxing to always be thinking six steps ahead when that table is going to order, they will need drink refills, and over there will want their check.  When the kitchen falls behind or messes something up, it costs you real money.  And when paying for a meal, people tend to be very particular about their food.  I think it is safe to say that I learned more about the human condition in my three years waiting tables than I have in my almost fifteen years of ordained ministry.  Everyone should have to wait tables once in their life.  It’ll make you a better tipper, and, I believe, a better person. 

It strikes me as odd then, that our lesson from the Acts of the Apostles begins with the twelve apostles calling the community together to tender their collective resignation from serving.  Some context offers a little explanation, but not much.  Our lesson starts with chapter six, verse two, but if we go back just one more verse, we hear that a disagreement has bubbled up in the church.  I’m sure you are all shocked to learn there is ever disagreement in the church.  Certainly, this is the only one that’s been about a church supper.  It seems the Greek speaking Christians thought that the largely Aramaic speaking Apostles were purposefully showing favoritism toward the Aramaic speaking widows in their daily food distribution.  The Apostles, that is the eleven who had followed Jesus the closest, plus Tier 1A Matthias who had been selected to replace Judas, quickly decided that the growth of the fledgling Church had to be their priority, and so they crafted a memo that was a poorly written as it was misguided.

“It is not right that we should neglect the word of God in order to wait on tables” was clearly written by a Church that didn’t yet have deacons.  Kellie Mysinger, a deacon who serves at Christ Church, Bowling Green, wouldn’t have let this through, I can assure you.  The Greek word translated as “waiting tables” is diakonia, it is elsewhere translated as service or ministry.  Diakonia, we will see in a moment, is at the heart of the calling of all Christians: laity, bishops, priests, and those whose very title means “to serve,” deacons.  Before we go any further then, let’s add one more dictum to our ongoing list.  Unless you actually handed out bread and fish to the 5,000, you never get to stop waiting tables in the Kingdom of God (and even then, it’s debatable).

It shouldn’t surprise us that the twelve would react the way they did.  They’d been doing it for years, even while Jesus walked the earth alongside them.  This morning’s Gospel story is one of their several adventures in missing the point.  It was Thursday evening and Jesus and his disciples had just wrapped up sharing the most important meal ever.  No sooner had Jesus finished instructing them to eat in remembrance of his body, broken for them and for the whole world, and to drink in remembrance of his blood, poured out for the remission of the sins of all, when the well-worn argument over which one of them was the greatest broke out, yet again.  Since he knew what was looming in the coming hours, I believe that what Jesus says here can be read as the most important thing he wanted his disciples to remember.  In a few short sentences, he lays out for the Apostles and all who would follow them, what it means to be a disciple of Jesus.  “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors.But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves (diakonia).For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves (diakonia)? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves (diakonia).”  Three times in those two sentences, Jesus uses the word, diakonia, once as a description of himself.

Diakonia is the heart of the Christian life.  It is a core tenant of the Baptismal Covenant – to seek and serve Christ in all persons.  Servant ministry is at the heart of the Examination at the ordination of both priests and bishops.  And a double portion of diakonia is the calling into which Billy, Ken, and Pete will be ordained today.  For Pete, this is the fullest expression of his calling, and while Ken and Billy will, God willing, later be ordained as priests, none of the three of you, not the bishop, not the canons, not me, nor any person, clergy or lay, in this Cathedral or online will ever have the luxury of saying, “I don’t think I’m going to wait tables anymore.”  Diakonia is the calling which we all share for it was none other than Jesus of Nazareth who came to us as one who serves.  Never forget that the example you are called to follow is that of Jesus Christ, who though he was God, humbled himself to a life of loving service to the poor, the outcast, the hungry, the oppressed, the powerful, the rich, the smug, the priests, the opinionated, the widows, the orphans, the lame, the Samaritan, the Hebrew, and the Greek.

Unlike my experience waiting tables at Garfield’s, the money in diakonia is terrible, but thankfully the work isn’t easy either.  Diakonia requires lots of walking, lots of heavy lifting, lots of caring, heartbreak, and frustration, but it isn’t something we do alone.  In a few minutes, Bishop White will invite the Holy Spirit to be present among us with power and might.  He’ll lay hands on the three of you and pray, on behalf of us all, that the Spirit would strengthen you to share in Christ’s diakonia.  It’s hard work, diakonia, but it is the work we share with one another and the help of the Holy Spirit.  Never forget your calling to diakonia, to servant ministry, and please for the love of all that is holy, never stop waiting tables.  Amen.

The Body of Christ

I am a creature of habit, and so, every morning, I follow the same routine.  I wake up, put in my air pods, and listen to two podcasts while I sip my coffee.  First, I listen to A Morning at the Office, a Daily Office podcast sponsored by Forward Movement.  My prayers said and Bible lessons heard, I then tune into the ESPN Daily podcast.  Every weekday, Pablo Torre spends about 30 minutes sharing a story from the world of sports.  Sometimes, it is a very timely story.  Every Monday, for example, they reflect on the NFL weekend that has passed.  Other times, they are deeper dives into the minutiae of sport. This was the case on Thursday when ESPN Daily spent 36 minutes and 23 seconds telling the story of one of the most overlooked specialists in all of football, the long snapper.

NFL rosters are made up of 53 players, no more, no less.  If you are even a casual sports fan, you probably know a lot about key positions like quarterback, running back, place kickers, and even line backers, but on any given roster there are probably two dozen players that few know anything about.  Most of those players are on special teams and play only a handful of downs each game.  Least thought about, but perhaps most important of all is the long snapper, and so Dave Fleming, Senior Writer for ESPN the Magazine, decided to tell their story.  To do so, he enlisted Morgan Cox, the All-Pro long snapper for the Tennessee Titans to share about how he became a long snapper, his time at the University of Tennessee, his 13-year career in the NFL, and the intricacies of his chosen vocation; from how the balls used for kicking are sanded down, to how he tries to repeat the same motion every time, allowing the snap to enter the hands of the holder in 0.7 seconds, at a velocity of 35 miles per hour, with the ball rotating exactly three and a quarter times.

What I found most interesting is the story of a January 12, 2013, playoff game between the Baltimore Ravens and Denver Broncos.  Morgan was the long snapper for the Baltimore Ravens and played the game with the flu.  It was 13 degrees at kick-off and the game went into double overtime.  Because he was feeling so awful, Morgan spent most of the game sitting on a heated bench, next to a jet engine of a space heater, wearing a giant puffy cape.  Combine all that with a fever, and Morgan began to sweat.  When the moment of truth came, he threw off his cape only to realize the sweat on his arms was beginning to freeze.  With ice covering his arms, he bent over to snap the ball at a perfect 35 miles per hour, rotating three and one quarter times into the hands of the holder with the laces out, allowing Justin Tucker to kick a game-winning 47-yard field goal.  The Ravens went on to win the Super Bowl that season, thanks, in part, to their frozen armed, flu-infected, long snapper, Morgan Cox.[1]

To crudely paraphrase Paul in First Corinthians, “Just as a football team is one and has many members, and all the members of the same team, though many, are one team, so it is with Christ Episcopal Church.  For in the one Spirit, we were all baptized into one body – Hilltoppers, Cardinals, or Wildcats; Republicans, Democrats, or others; students, employed, or retired – and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.”  Last Sunday, I preached on the giftedness of all of us and how those gifts are given not for individual glory, but for the building up of the Kingdom of Heaven.  This morning, as we prepare to gather for our Annual Meeting, I’m struck by the story of Morgan Cox and how every member of this community has something vital to offer.

Over the course of the last two years, being an active part of the Body of Christ has been difficult.  To overextend the football metaphor, for most of us, our time on the bench has caused our muscles to atrophy.  Once vibrant and active ministers find it hard to get back into the swing of things, and systems that picked up the slack are feeling the weight of more and more work with fewer and fewer helpers.  This isn’t to point fingers or to blame anyone, but simply to name the reality that the pandemic has fundamentally changed how we operate as the Body of Christ.  We have buried a lot of people over the last two years.  All of us are two years older, and there has been very little opportunity to integrate new members into our community.  Some have joined us, and I am beyond grateful for their presence, but in the coming months and years, a concerted effort to grow our congregation across all demographics – age, race, and family structure – must be developed.  Our evangelism, hospitality, and congregational development muscles will need some exercise to come back into shape.

Of course, not everyone is gifted in evangelism and hospitality.  Others are gifted in service, prayer, and acts of mercy.  Ministries of lay pastoral care, which have also languished in the pandemic, will require us to stretch these muscles.  Lay Eucharistic Ministers, Stephen Ministers, prayer shawls, and others will be needed to make sure those among us who are suffering remain connected to their community of faith and experience the compassionate love of God in their most difficult moments.  Outreach ministries like Room in the Inn, Churches United in Christ HELP Ministry, and Wednesday Community lunch also need gifted people in order to radiate God’s love to all.

As we look to the future of Faith Formation at Christ Church, I’m thankful to those who continue to share their gifts of teaching, wisdom, and leadership to ensure that God’s children from 3 to 103 continue to grow in faith and understanding.  We are blessed with a whole host of hungry learners and eager teachers.  There are also essential volunteers on the garden committee, working the front desk, and on the audio-visual team who use a whole host of gifts to make sure this place looks amazing, runs smoothly, and shares the Good News of God’s love far and wide.

In the story of Morgan Cox, I am reminded that no gift is insignificant.  Each of us plays an important role in the Body of Christ.  Each of us helps radiate the love of God to a world that desperately needs it.  Thank you for your willingness to share your gifts.  And get ready, because we’ll be asking you to step in all kinds of ways in 2022 and beyond.  May the Holy Spirit bless us all with gifts in abundance and the energy to share them for the common good and building up the Body of Christ.  Amen.

[1] “Longsnappers: The NFL’s Unsung Special Teams Artists” ESPN Daily Podcast, January 20, 2022

Ubuntu and the Body of Christ

       Lost amidst tornado relief and the Christmas holiday was the news that Anglicanism lost one of its brightest lights.  Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate and architect of post-apartheid South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission died after a lengthy illness on December 26.  I had the distinct pleasure to hear Archbishop Tutu speak twice back in the mid-two thousands; once at Virginia Seminary and later when he preached the ordination of Nathan Baxter as the Bishop of Central Pennsylvania.  Desmond Tutu was not a large man, but his presence was imposing.  His voice was small.  His laughter was infectious.  And he spoke with the gravity of the very word of God.  You could sense the depth of his relationship with Jesus.  You knew you were in the presence of holiness.  

       One of the many gifts Archbishop Tutu has left the world is the proliferation of the Bantu concept of Ubuntu.  Ubutnu is the ancient African spiritual understanding that humanity was created to be one with our Creator, one another, and all of creation.[1] Roughly translated from Zulu, Ubuntu means “I am because we are.”  Archbishop Tutu believed that Ubuntu is the essence of being human.  “I can’t be a human being on my lonesome,” he once said, “I wouldn’t know how to speak as a human being; I wouldn’t know how to think as a human being; I wouldn’t know how to walk as a human being.  I have to learn from other human beings how to be human.  And so, Ubuntu says, ‘my humanity is tied up in yours.  I am only because you are.’  A person is a person only through other persons.”[2]  For Archbishop Tutu, this understanding of our interconnectedness was also essential to the Christian faith.

       I’ve carried Ubuntu with me for nearly two decades now, and while I don’t always live up to its ideal, I’m grateful for the role it plays in my own walk as a disciple of Jesus.  Even our own Book of Common Prayer unwittingly draws on Ubuntu when it describes the mission of the Church as restoring all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.[3]  We were created to be in relationship with God and with one another, and sin happens when any relationship is broken.  Salvation comes when we live most fully into the understanding that “I am because we are” and that I am only fully human when I acknowledge the full humanity of others.

Ubuntu might run up against our modern, western, self-reliance and rugged American individualism, but it is not without scriptural merit.  One could argue that the entire text of First Corinthians is Paul helping the Church in Corinth see that following Jesus means respecting the dignity of all your neighbors, whether they are rich or poor, Jew or Gentile, wise or foolish.  In the lesson we heard read this morning, we hear Paul addressing the issue of spiritual gifts.  Context tells us that some were puffing themselves up because of the gifts they had while treating others as less than because of their gifts.  Paul is quick to remind the Corinthians that the only gift that really matters is the ability to say, “Jesus is Lord,” and even that comes not from our own ability, but from the Holy Spirit.

Beyond that, Paul says, whatever other gifts one might receive weren’t given because of some sort of merit or special blessing, but rather they are given, in all their glorious diversity, for the “common good.”  That’s how most mid-twentieth century English Bibles translate sympheron here in verse seven, but elsewhere in Scripture it is translated as “bringing together” (Acts 19:19) or “beneficial” (1 Corinthians 10:23).  The “common good” isn’t just for one congregation, diocese, or denomination.  The “common good” that all our giftedness is meant to work toward is Ubuntu, the coming together of all of humanity with God, each other, and creation.

Take, for example, the experience of Bowling Green since December 11th.  In the immediate aftermath, the gifts of a large organization like Living Hope Baptist Church were needed to coordinate the very urgent need to remove trees, pile up debris, and distribute critical supplies.  In the days the followed, needs shifted, and the gift of nationwide connections in denominations like the Disciples of Christ and the Presbyterian Church USA brought in volunteers to spell local folks who had their own grief to contend with.  Now, as FEMA trucks roll through the community from dawn ‘til dusk, our connections and the ability to raise funds from around the country are needed to help fill the gaps and lift up those who might fall through the cracks.  Each community of faith has individual members who are gifted.  Each community of faith also has its own level of giftedness.  Together, we have worked for the benefit of a community in pain and grief.

Even so, the “common good” isn’t only for one community dealing with two years of pandemic and four winter tornados in less than two weeks.  The common good to which God calls us all is for all of creation.  The common good toward which we are invited to work alongside God is ultimately the Kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven.  It is a place where relationships are no longer broken by selfish ambition.  It is a place where every human being is treated with the respect they deserve; rich and poor alike share in the abundance of God’s created order; and the earth itself is seen as a gift from God worthy of care.  The “common good” is the place where Jesus Christ is, as we prayed for in today’s Collect, “known, worshipped, and obeyed to the ends of the earth,” not out of fear of some everlasting damnation, but because the radiance of Christ’s glory is seen in disciples of Jesus using their wildly diverse gifts for the building up of all of humanity.

In baptism, every Christian receives gifts from the Holy Spirit that are meant to be shared far and wide.  As Christian educator Debie Thomas wrote this week, “My ability to teach, preach, serve, love, pray, sing, hope, trust, write, nurture, or heal is not given to me for my personal [enjoyment.]  It is given solely for the common edification, growth, and blessing of the church.  To hoard a spiritual gift is to desecrate it.  To practice a Lone Ranger Christianity is to fundamentally misunderstand and distort the purpose of God’s generosity.  I receive for the sake of others.  Which is to say, God apportions spiritual gifts based on the needs of the community as a whole — not on my “personal” needs.  My gifts carry you, and your gifts carry me.  It is God’s intention that we rely on each other.  That we need each other.”[4]

Each of us is a human only because of other humans.  Each of us is a Christian only because of other Christians.  Each of us has gifts to help build up humanity and the Body of Christ only because of the richness of God’s grace and God’s deep desire to see all of creation reconciled to one another.  May God give us the ability to see in one another, the glorious diversity of our gifts.  May God give us the eyes to see in ourselves the gifts we have to share.  And may God bless us with a spirit of Ubuntu and bring us to the “common good” of all of creation through the gifts of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

[1] “Ubuntu: A Brief Description” The Desmond Tutu Peace Foundation on YouTube –

[2] “Ubuntu: The Essence of Being Human” The Desmond Tutu Peace Foundation on YouTube –

[3] BCP, 854.

[4] “Many Gifts, One Spirit” by Debie Thomas (emphasis, original)

Christmas 2021 – The Return of Ricky Bobby

“And the angel said unto them, ‘Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.”  All people?  I’ve been stuck on this very familiar line for the last two weeks.  Is this Christmas good news for people living in hotels because their homes are too damaged?  Is this Christmas good news for people mourning the loss of loved ones to natural disaster, violence, or disease?  Is this Christmas good news to the tired, over-worked, and heavily burdened?  Can the good news that the angels brought into the Judean countryside really be for all people?  I suppose these questions could be asked every year, but when widespread pain hits so close to home, they seem to sit down in our living rooms, look us in the eye, and ask, do you really believe in this good news?

It’s been an uphill battle, to be sure, but tonight, I am finally back to the place where I can say, with full conviction that, yes, I do believe that the birth of a baby in a backwater town, to an unwed mother, two thousand years ago is good news for all people.  I believe it, in part, because I have come to know this child, Jesus, in my life in many different ways.  Earlier this week, at the funeral service for the longest-tenured member of this congregation, Jesus came to me as the Good Shepherd depicted in the window above me.  He arrived as a comforter who promises to carry me through those moments when I just can’t handle one more thing.  I’m grateful to Good Shepherd Jesus because he got me through the hardest parts of this week.

As the week went on, however, I found another Jesus creeping into my consciousness.  This Jesus knew that I had a sermon to write for tonight and just kept nagging at me to tell his story.  This Jesus is the baby Jesus, but not the tender and mild one you see in nativity scenes the world over.  Instead, this Jesus was first introduced to me in the 2006 theological wonder known as Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby.  Ricky Bobby, played by Saturday Night Live alumnus Will Farrell, is a successful NASCAR driver.  One night, as he, his wife, kids, father-in-law, and best friend sit down to a dinner made up of all his sponsors, Ricky began to pray,

“Dear Lord baby Jesus, or as our brothers to the south call you, Jesús, we thank you so much for this bountiful harvest of Dominos, KFC, and the always delicious Taco Bell… Dear Lord baby Jesus, we also want to thank you for my wife’s father, Chip, we hope that you can use your baby Jesus powers to heal him and his horrible leg… Dear tiny, infant Jesus…”

When challenged with the fact that Jesus did, in fact, grow up, Ricky responds, “I like the Christmas Jesus best and I’m saying grace. When you say grace you can say it to grown-up Jesus, or teen-age Jesus, or bearded Jesus, whoever you want…” He folds his hands and bows his head again and says, “Dear tiny Jesus, in your Golden Fleece diapers with your tiny, little, fat balled up first…”
Again, Ricky is challenged, “He was a man, he had a beard!”  Ricky finally finishes his prayer, “Dear eight-pound six-ounce, newborn infant Jesus, don’t even know a word yet, just a little infant, so cuddly, but still omnipotent. We just thank you for all the races I’ve won… thank you for all your power and your grace dear baby God, Amen.”

It is very strange to hear it out loud, but I think that this is often the way we pray. “Dear tiny infant Jesus” is a pleasant way to picture our God. And, you know, I don’t think there is anything wrong with that image of Jesus. It is part of what makes Christmas so special. God came to earth to put creation back together not by appearing magically out of thin air, but through the natural means by which a human being comes it this world. God entered the world just as helpless as the rest of us. God arrived as “dear tiny infant Jesus” – fully God and fully human.

God comes to us in all kinds of ways.  In that same dinner prayer scene, Ricky’s friend, Cal Naughton, Jr. tells Ricky, “I like to picture Jesus in a tuxedo t-shirt because it says like I want to be formal, but I’m here to party too…” and “I like to think of Jesus with giant, eagle’s wings and singing lead vocals for Lynyrd Skynyrd with an angel band…”  Ricky’s oldest son, Walker tells his dad that he likes to think of Jesus as a ninja, fighting off evil samurai.  Like I said, God comes to us in all kinds of ways.  The good news for all people is that in the incarnation, God became human so that humanity might become like God.

Incarnation is a fancy church word, and for that I’m sorry. It is created by combining two Latin words. The first, y’all know well, “in” which means, well, in. The second is “carnis” which means flesh. In – Flesh. Theologically, it is the understanding that God became human in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. The Incarnation means that God was one of us. It means that as Jesus experienced desires, temptations, frustrations, joys; all the messiness of life as a human being, it became a part of God.  As Jesus experienced them, so too did God.  Jesus being “in flesh” means that the gap between God and humanity was bridged; our relationship was restored. God, having now felt what it is like to be a human, to have a will that is prone to messing up, knows more fully what it means when we come to God with all of our joys and all of our sorrows. God was “in flesh” on earth! This is the good news of Christmas; God intervening radically in creation to restore our relationship; not just as a helpless baby, but throughout the life of experiences of teenage Jesus and grown-up, bearded Jesus.

Not only does God experience what it is like to be human, but we have a chance to see how God would have us live. The other side of the Incarnation coin is that God is made comprehensible by being “in flesh.” In the full life of Jesus, we see a life lived fully in accordance with God’s will. From Jesus’ first cry as an infant to his final gasp for breath on the cross, we get in the life of Jesus a life lived in perfect harmony with God. And, to be honest, we see that it isn’t all that demanding. It begins with a life lived modeling tiny-infant-Jesus; looking up with wide-eyed awe at the splendor of God’s creation; recognizing our full dependence on God for all things. As we grow in faith, we become more like teenage Jesus, getting to know God through Worship and the word. And then, as we mature, the model becomes grown-up-bearded Jesus. His life was one of service to the poor, outcast, sick, widowed, and orphaned. It was a life lived sharing the good news of God’s divine justice for the oppressed, the sad, and the lonely. It is a full life; from birth to death; a life lived from Sunday to Saturday – week after week after week.

The incarnation is all about God’s love for us overflowing. It is about God coming “in flesh” to show us how to live in response to that great love. As we gather this night to celebrate the Incarnation in the Nativity of tiny-infant Jesus we take that first step. As we leave tonight to await Santa’s arrival, we enter the world refreshed and renewed; ready to live another year in the model of the life of God “in flesh”. We prepare ourselves for another try at living in full harmony with the will of God. But we go, not filled with our own abilities, but instead empowered by the Holy Spirit, glorifying and praising God for all that we have heard and seen; excited for what a life lived with Jesus has in store.

Thanks be to God for sending Jesus to us in exactly the way we need him: newborn infant Jesus; teen-aged Jesus, Good Shepherd Jesus, Ninja Jesus, or Lynyrd Skynyrd Jesus. Thanks be to God for being willing to restore all of creation by living as one of us. And thanks be to God for the perfect model of Kingdom living. May God fill us to overflowing for another year of trying to live that life. Amen.

Lost and Listening

       Back in the 90s, when I was still a baby-faced young adult, I worked part-time as a youth minister for St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church in Lancaster, PA.  At that time, indoor rock climbing was just becoming a thing, and a few of my students were all about it.  We decided one Saturday to head to Reading, PA, about 45 minutes down the road, to spend the afternoon in a rock-climbing gym up there.  It being the 90s, smart phones and GPS weren’t available, so I went online and printed out directions on MapQuest.  Maybe you remember those bad old days when your directions couldn’t automatically recalculate.  They were not good times.  We proceeded to get epically lost.  After an hour of driving around Reading, which isn’t really that big of a town, we finally found ourselves back on the right road.  Looking at the numbers on the buildings, we weren’t that far from where we hoped to go, until, as we passed through an intersection, the name of road changed.

       Realizing that we were lost again and that there would be no rock climbing this day, I slammed my fists against the steering wheel and yelled, “Awwww BLEEP,” at the top of my lungs, forgetting entirely who else was in the car with me.  The bleep was another, strong word, and the kids laughed at my lack of personal censorship.  We stopped and got ice cream and had some great conversations about how our mentors and the adults in our lives are real people, who, like everybody else, fall short of the glory of God sometimes.  It turned out to be a great afternoon, and the Druce brothers still know that they can call me anytime they need support because, most likely, I’ve been right where they are.

       God shows up just when we need it, no matter where we are or what is going on around us.  That’s the lesson I learned that delightfully frustrating Saturday afternoon in Reading, PA.  I believe Luke is trying to get across that same lesson in the opening verses of chapter three that we heard this morning.  He begins by setting the scene with a list of powerful men who were the political and religious leaders over Israel.  It was the fifteenth year of the reign of the Roman Emperor Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate was the Roman Governor of Judea, and Herod, Philip, and Lysanias were figure-head tetrarchs over the land.  Annas and Caiaphas held the role of Chief Priest.  It was either 28 or 29 CE and a man named John, whose lineage was priestly on both sides of his family, had eschewed all claims he had to power and privilege and was in the wilderness, dressed in camel hair, subsiding on locusts and wild honey.

       Whether you live in first century Palestine or twenty-first century America, if I asked you where the word of God would arrive, 99 times out of 100, you would answer, “in the Temple.”  The word of God has long been associated with the religious powers-that-be.  That’s why we have them.  They hear and interpret the word of God and then bring it to the people in a way that they can understand.  That was the system in place in 28 CE.  The people went to the Temple to fulfill their religious obligations and people like Annas, Caiaphas, and John’s father, Zechariah, received their gifts, proclaimed the word of God, and offered God’s forgiveness.  The last place we would expect God’s word to show up was in the wilderness, what with all its barrenness and foreboding.  Earlier in his Gospel, Luke tells us that the wilderness was John’s home.[1]  He’d been there for years, praying, growing, and deepening his relationship with God.  After years and years in the wilderness, the word of God came to him right where he was.

       The word that came to John was the same word that had come to the prophet Isaiah during the Babylonian exile, God is going to rescue God’s people.  Not only that, but God is going to make it so that salvation is available to everyone, no matter what.  There will be no more desolate valleys, all will be filled in.  The haughtiness of the mountains will be humbled.  Every path will be made straight.  Even the rough patches will be made smooth.  No matter where you live.  No matter your socio-economic status.  No matter whether you can walk with ease, shuffle along, or require a wheelchair.  There will be no obstacles between you or me or anyone else and the kingdom of God.  That’s some pretty good news, and it kind of makes sense that it would arrive as a word to someone like John who found his home about as far away from the seats of powers in his world.  Creating obstacles is precisely what the powerful do to maintain control.  The harder life is, the further away God seems, the more difficult God’s grace is to access, the more intermediaries are required.  This word of universal ease of access to God couldn’t possibly come to the Chief Priests in the Temple.  It could, I suppose, but it would probably fall on deaf ears.

       This idea of God’s word of hope coming in the heart of the wilderness, to the least and the lost, spoke to me this week.  Not because Christ Church is the least.  We are well resourced and connected closely to the power structures in our community.  Rather, what struck me is how the whole world has spent the better part of the last 20 months living in the wilderness.  Many of us have been disconnected from the communities that sustain us.  Whether it is our community of faith, work colleagues, classmates, extended family, and friends, the vast majority of us spent quite a bit of time separated from the people who make us who we are. Some of us remain disconnected even today.  Many were isolated from the vocations that we love.  For nine weeks, millions of people weren’t allowed to go to work as barbers, dental hygienists, or personal trainers.  For much longer than that, many of us “worked from home,” kind of doing our jobs, but not really, and definitely not in a way that was fulfilling.  Everything we knew about the world we lived in changed back in March of 2020, and we’ve spent the last 20 months wandering around the metaphorical wilderness, not sure what was next.

       What if, instead of seeing these last 20 months as a burden, we spent this next phase of late-stage pandemic life listening for a word of God that comes to find us in the wilderness?  What if we spent this next season looking for the ways in which we, as the body of Christ at Christ Episcopal Church, are being called to the work of filling in some valleys, humbling some mountains, and making the salvation of God accessible to all of humanity?  What if we took being lost in wilderness as an opportunity to meet some new people, to hear their stories, and to show the world that, flawed as we all are, together, we can make a difference?  Getting lost turned out to be exactly what God needed me to be in Reading that day.  In the wilderness is precisely where John the Baptist needed to be to hear the word of God.  What if in this extended wilderness experience, God is calling us to work, to change, and to grow?  If only we would have ears to listen.  Listen, can you hear the word of God calling you?  Listen.  Amen.

[1] Luke 1:80