Saturday, January 13, 2018

The 2nd Sunday after Epiphany Year B

The Second Sunday after the Epiphany-Year B January 14, 2018 It was the summer of 1996. I was entering my junior year in college and had not yet declared a major because I couldn’t figure out what I wanted to be when I grew up. I had thought I might go to law school (it’s ok, you can laugh at that, it’s funny!), but that just didn’t seem to be the right fit. One day, I was sitting on the window seat in my parents’ kitchen and talking to my mom about the vocational difficulties I was having, and she said to me, “Have you ever thought about being a priest?” I was stunned. Not because I hadn’t thought about it, but because I had. But I hadn’t told anyone, because I just wasn’t sure. But when she asked me that question, it was as if I could actually start really considering it, because someone else had seen that in me. But still I was nowhere near sure. That summer I entered a semester long program of study abroad through Rhodes and Sewanee, and so I set a goal for myself that I would spend much of that time in prayer and reflection, and I would come back with an answer—am I called to be a priest or not. It was an incredible semester! We spent 8 weeks in England, and we tramped around all the old monastery ruins, so many thin places where so many prayers have been offered and the veil between this world and the next seems to be non-existent. We learned about our fathers and mothers in the faith, and I was steeped in English and European history, art, religion, and culture. And in all those holy places I kept praying, “God, please, let me know if you are calling me to be a priest.” I was still so very uncertain. Then one day, we had an extracurricular assignment in a church outside of Florence overlooking the city. It was a very simple church, and my college roommate and I went in and sat and started working on our assignment. As we worked quietly, a woman soloist came in and started rehearsing; she was singing Ave Maria, and I found myself praying my same old prayer, “God, please, let me know if you are calling me to be a priest.” And then suddenly, unexpectedly, a voice, that was as familiar as my own and also not, spoke in my soul and said, “Faith is not knowing but doing.” When I came back to myself, I knew, right or wrong, I was going to pursue the priesthood because what I understood that one sentence to mean-- “faith is not knowing but doing”--is that we are called to act, even when we are uncertain, and we are called to trust that God will pick us up if we fall. That was probably the first time in my life that I heard God’s call in my life, and I answered, like Samuel, “here I am, Lord. Speak, for your servant is listening.” Last Sunday, during the sermon, I took us through the prayer book and did a teaching on the sacrament of baptism and what we think that we are doing when we baptize someone. But there are more sacraments in this church besides baptism, and so I decided to do something like a sermon series on all of the sacraments. (Who remembers how many sacraments there are? 7 and who remembers what the definition of a sacrament is? It’s on page 857: “The sacraments are outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual grace, given by Christ as sure and certain means by which we receive that grace.”) So who can guess what sacrament we’re going to talk briefly about today? Ordination. But before we talk about ordination, we need to talk about ministry in the church. Turn in your prayer books to page 855, and someone tell me who are the ministers of the church? “The ministers of the Church are lay persons, bishops, priests, and deacons.” Now, in the Book of Common Prayer, order is always important when it lists different options. The first thing listed is always the preferred, the norm, or the most important. So which order of ministry of the church does the BCP say is most important? The lay people. And what does the prayer book say is the ministry of the lay people? (We’re still on p 855) “The ministry of lay persons is to represent Christ and his Church; to bear witness to him wherever they may be; and, according to the gifts given them, to carry on Christ's work of reconciliation in the world; and to take their place in the life, worship, and governance of the Church.” So, if the laity is so important, which it is, then why do we even have ordination? What is ordination anyway? (p 860) “Ordination is the rite in which God gives authority and the grace of the Holy Spirit to those being made bishops, priests, and deacons, through prayer and the laying on of hands by bishops.” What are the different ministries of bishops, priests and deacons? (p855) Let’s start with bishops. The word bishop comes from the Greek word episkopos which means overseer. (How many of you ever wondered what Episcopal meant? The Episcopal church is the bishop church. And the ministry of a bishop? “The ministry of a bishop is to represent Christ and his Church, particularly as apostle, chief priest, and pastor of a diocese; to guard the faith, unity, and discipline of the whole Church; to proclaim the Word of God; to act in Christ's name for the reconciliation of the world and the building up of the Church; and to ordain others to continue Christ's ministry.” The word for priest that we find most frequently in the New Testament is presbyteros which means elder. This is where we get the word presbyter, that we use interchangeably with the word priest. And the ministry of a priest? “The ministry of a priest is to represent Christ and his Church, particularly as pastor to the people; to share with the bishop in the overseeing of the Church; to proclaim the Gospel; to administer the sacraments; and to bless and declare pardon in the name of God.” The word deacon is also from a Greek word—diakonos--which means servant. And the ministry of a deacon? “The ministry of a deacon is to represent Christ and his Church, particularly as a servant of those in need; and to assist bishops and priests in the proclamation of the Gospel and the administration of the sacraments.” So, three distinct orders with three distinct roles. And each one has its own unique ordination service that has elements corresponding with the unique role of the order and then there are elements that each of the three different ordination services share in common. What they have in common is the fact that at each ordination service, the ordinand makes what is called “the declaration of conformity”: each one must “solemnly declare that I do believe the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be the Word of God, and to contain all things necessary to salvation; and I do solemnly engage to conform to the doctrine, discipline, and worship of The Episcopal Church.” Every ordination is presided over by at least one bishop. (If it is an Episcopal ordination-ordination of a bishop-anybody know how many bishops must be present? At least 3. Likewise at both a deacon and priest ordination, at least 2 presbyters must be present.) And every ordination includes an invocation of the Holy Spirit, the laying on of hands by a bishop upon the head of the one or ones being ordained, a vow made by the ordinand that is unique to the demands of that particular ministry, and the celebration of the Holy Eucharist. (If you’d like to learn more about ordination as a sacrament, I encourage you to take read the three different services in the prayer book. They begin on page 510 and are under the heading “Episcopal services” because they require a bishop to preside.) What’s important to remember about the four different orders of the church is that we all have vows, and we all have the opportunity to renew those vows. And we are all called to the ministry of building up God’s church and being agents of Christ’s reconciliation in the world. The only way that any of us are able to accomplish any of this work is together, as the body or Christ and through the grace of God and with the gift of God’s Holy Spirit to console, empower, guide and direct us. Your invitation for this week is to spend time inquiring how God might be calling you to grow more deeply in your ministry by opening yourself to God in prayer and, possibly using the words of Samuel, make space for God to speak to you and for you to listen: “Here I am….speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”

Saturday, January 6, 2018

Epiphany 1B 2018

The First Sunday after the Epiphany January 7, 2018 The other day I read an article from The Living Church that was making the rounds on Facebook among some of my clergy friends—you may have seen it. It’s titled A Good Map for the Journey and it is one article in a series about revising the 1979 prayer book which will be up for conversation at General Convention that is happening in Austin this summer. In this article, the author, Scott Gunn (who is the Executive Director of the Forward Movement—best known for the Forward Day by Day devotions) starts his article by talking about a Facebook straw poll that he conducted as a part of research for a new book he’s working on. He writes, “Recently I asked my Facebook friends what they understand to be happening when we baptize someone. ‘Nothing at all,’ a few people said with startling boldness. Several others said baptism recognizes that God already loves us, but that no change is effected in the sacrament. To be sure, some people did give answers that sounded orthodox. I have been saying for a few years that we have a catechetical crisis in the Episcopal Church, and this Facebook exchange confirmed what I suspected. Many among the laity, and not a few of our clergy, do not seem to grasp the fundamental meaning and purpose of baptism and Eucharist. This is a problem in its own right, and it must surely color any conversation about prayer book revision.” So, think about it for a minute. If you had to take Scott Gunn’s poll and answer the question, “what do you think happens when we baptize someone?” how would you answer? Where would you start? One of the things that I like to teach in all my Inquirer’s classes is a short Latin phrase: lex orandi lex credendi. It means literally “the law of prayer shapes the law of believe” or “the law of belief shapes the law of prayer”. We interpret it to mean: Praying shapes believing and believing shapes praying. This is a foundational understanding of what it means to be an Episcopalian. We believe what we pray and we pray what we believe. So if we have a question about an aspect of our faith, we start by looking at the Book of Common Prayer. So, what does the BCP have to say about baptism? Let’s start with the catechism—which is a section of the prayer book that provides an outline of our faith and a summary of the church’s teachings on a number of subjects. (If you haven’t ever read through the catchechism, then I strongly encourage you to do so. It is a font of useful information. My husband has it mostly memorized because he used to read through the catechism and the historical documents during boring sermons of his youth.) Turn to page 857. First and foremost for us, baptism is a sacrament. What’s a sacrament? (“an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace, given by Christ as sure and certain means by which we receive that grace.”) (Who knows how many sacraments there are total?) There are a total of 7 sacraments in the Episcopal church, but look, the prayer book says that there are two great sacraments of the gospel—Holy Baptism and Holy Eucharist have given by Christ to his Church. So, what is Holy Baptism? “Holy Baptism is the sacrament by which God adopts us as his children and makes us members of Christ’s Body, the Church, and inheritors of the kingdom of God.” But wait, aren’t we already God’s children? Why do we need to be adopted in our baptism? Good question! We’ll come back to that. (But before we move on from the catechism, I want to say that if you don’t own a Prayer Book, and would like to borrow one this week to continue reading more in the catechism, then you are most welcome to take one home to do that. Just bring it back with you next Sunday.) Turn in your prayer books to page 298—the beginning of the rite for Holy Baptism. Look at the first paragraph. Does someone want to read it out loud? “Holy Baptism is full initiation by water and the Holy Spirit into Christ’s Body the Church. The bond which God establishes in Baptism is indissoluble.” At our baptism, we are changed. We become a part of Christ’s body and receive all the benefits of membership in the church. This is why I encourage parents to let their children receive communion as soon as they are baptized, because Holy Eucharist is the food and drink of the body of Christ and even children, once baptized, are full members of Christ’s body. Our bond that God establishes with us at our baptism can never be changed or dissolved. No matter what. The Eastern Church likes to say that baptism is “becoming who we already are.” From the moment of our creation, each one of us has been claimed by God as God’s beloved. “God loves each and every one of us with a love that is unmerited, unconditional and never ending. There is nothing we humans can do, or need to do, to make that love available to ourselves or anyone else. Baptism is not necessary for a child or an adult to be the subject of God’s love. But it is the means by which we become aware of a love we might not otherwise be able to appreciate of benefit from.” In baptism, we begin a process of becoming who we already are—people who are shaped more and more into the image and likeness of Christ. “This is accomplished by God’s action in our lives to which we respond. Therefore, it is expected that we will renew our baptismal covenant over and over again…Further, to emphasize the need for renewal, it is expected that everyone in a congregation will renew his or her covenant on the various days set aside for baptisms, even if there is no one to baptized.” Turn in your prayer book to page 312 and someone read the first paragraph: “Holy Baptism is especially appropriate at the Easter Vigil, on the Day of Pentecost, on All Saints' Day or the Sunday after All Saints' Day, and on the Feast of the Baptism of our Lord (the First Sunday after the Epiphany). It is recommended that, as far as possible, Baptisms be reserved for these occasions or when a bishop is present.” (What’s today?) I once had a bishop who, in order to emphasize the importance of baptism, would use blessed water-like what we have in the font up here, and he would invite people to come kneel at the altar rail, and he would make the sign of the cross on their heads with the water and say to them, “Remember you baptism.” This is what we are doing every time we walk past this font and make the sign of the cross with the water. We are remembering the truth of our baptism. We are remembering that we have been claimed as God’s beloved, adopted into the family of God, and transformed into a member of the body of Christ. We remember that in baptism we are becoming who we already are, and we live into that becoming for as long as we are alive. So this week, I invite you to spend some time thinking about what you believe about Holy Baptism. In what ways can you look back over your faith journey and mark how you have grown move deeply into the image and likeness of Christ. How are you responding to God’s action in your life? How are you becoming who you already are? Soures: https://livingchurch.org/covenant/2017/01/23/a-good-map-for-the-journey/ Westerhoff, John H. Holy Baptism: A Guide for Parents and Godparents. Morehouse: 1996 (revised 1998), p 3 Ibid pp 12-13

Epiphany

The Feast of the Epiphany January 6, 2018 When I was working at the Stewpot soup kitchen, there was a song that we’d sing periodically in the daily chapel service that I always think about on Epiphany and during the season that follows it. It goes “Let your light shine, shine, shine. Let your light shine, shine, shine. May be somebody down in the valley tryin’ to get home.” When I was a kid and people talked about letting your light shine, I always thought that meant to be yourself. But I’m not so sure that’s all there is to it. In our readings for today, I was struck by a line in this familiar story from Matthew’s gospel that I’ve never really noticed before. “When they saw the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy.” Why? Was it because they had found what they were searching for? The savior of the nations. Or because they had come to the end of their long journey? Why were they overwhelmed with joy? Think about it in terms of your own life. When was the last time that you were “overwhelmed with joy”? What was happening? Why? I read an article this week by a theologian and professor at Yale named Miroslav Volf. He was writing about how joy is usually associated with Christmas but there are glimpses of joy all throughout Epiphany as well—specifically in the story of the wisemen that we see today and in the story of Jesus’s first miracle at the wedding in Cana of Galilee. Volf concludes his article by writing about the goodness of creation and that “joy is an echo of that original and abiding goodness [of creation] in our souls.”i Think about that for a minute. Another way to say it might be that Joy is an echo of the original and abiding goodness of God in our souls. Maybe the wisemen are overwhelmed with joy because in that moment, they have found God, the source of all goodness, all joy, and they are about to meet him face to face. So, if our joy finds it origin in God, then it doesn’t really belong to us. It is a gift to us, and it is a gift that we can share. During this season of Epiphany, I invite you to ask yourself the question often: When was I last overwhelmed with joy? Why? Listen to your life for the joy that is already there, the echo of the goodness of God and of God’s creation. And look for way that you can share that joy with others. “Let your light shine, shine, shine. Let your light shine, shine, shine. May be somebody down in the valley tryin’ to get home.” i Volf goes into greater detail about the joy in each, and you can read that here if you’d like: https://www.christiancentury.org/article/critical-essay/joy-epiphany-too.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Christmas Eve

This season, I’ve been listening to one particular Christmas cd over and over again. It is Yo-Yo Ma and Friends: Songs of Joy and Peace. I had listened to it several times without really thinking about it before something strange about it occurred to me. Out of the 28 Christmas songs that Yo-Yo Ma and his friends have compiled, 8 of them are different versions/ improvisations on one song: Dona Nobis Pacem. Dona nobis pacem. Do you know this song? It’s actually found in our own hymnal on page 712. It goes like this: It means, “grant us peace.” So as I’ve been listening to this Christmas album through this season, I’ve been listening to this one song over and over and over again. Grant us peace. Grant us peace. It is a simple song of both hope and longing. I think it is safe to say that every single one of us longs for peace. And like those different musicians doing different improvisations on the same song, we sing this longing for peace differently in our own lives. Some of us sing it hopefully. Some of us sing it sadly, remembering what peace we have lost. Some of us sing it angrily, as we see the injustice around us or in our own lives. But no matter how each of us sings it, it is the song that is found at the deepest, depths of each of our hearts. Lord, grant us peace. It is what we have come here tonight in search of. It is what we long to experience and encounter here, at least on this one night, if we can’t have it in any other place or time. Lord, grant us peace. So what do we make of the angels’ proclamation to the shepherds? “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” It seems that they are saying that peace comes with Jesus, but if this is so, then how is it that we long so desperately for it all these many years later? One of the deep truths that we are called to remember this night, when we celebrate the birth of Emmanuel--God with us--is this. Jesus doesn’t bring the kingdom of God; he reveals the kingdom of God. Jesus doesn’t bring peace. He reveals that peace is already here, within our grasp and within our hearts. On this night, of all nights, we remember that God takes on human form to reveal to us Godself, to reveal to us just how much God cherishes us. In and through this gift, God shows that God experiences and understands how difficult and dark our days can be, how confused we get about our identity and place, how many painful things we do to each other out of that confusion and insecurity. And through Jesus, God shows us, again and again and again, but also for the first time tonight, that God loves us—deeply, truly, and forever; that God is with us; that God’s kingdom is already here among us; and that God’s peace already dwells deep within us. The message of the angels for us this night is this. You are of infinite value, deeply loved by God. God is with you, and you already have the peace of God within you. So tonight, we sing this song of longing for peace out of place of thanksgiving—that God’s peace is already ours (You can sing it with me if you like…)

Thursday, December 21, 2017

4th Sunday of Advent

4th Sunday of Advent Year B December 24, 2017 When I was in college, we had to do a project in a religious studies class where we sought out and interviewed a leader in a religious tradition that was very different from our own. I reached out to the Greek Orthodox priest in town, a man named Father Paul Christie, who graciously allowed me to interview him. I only remember a couple of things that we talked about in that interview many years ago, but one of the things I remember is Mary. I asked him, “How does your tradition view Mary?” And he answered, “We believe that Mary is the best that humanity had to offer God.” Another Episcopal priest once wrote that scripture is the Love story of God for God’s people: it shows how God has pursued us, wooed us, mourned us, and pursued us again. Over and over in scripture, all God wants is for us to say “yes” to God. Yes, we will be your people. Yes, we will not forsake you for other gods or other idols that we will worship. Yes, we will treat each other how you want us to treat each other. Yes, we will care for the poor and the neglected among us. Yes we will take care of your creation. Yes, we will open our hearts to you and offer our very lives to be in relationship with you and service to you. And finally, Mary does this. She says “yes” to God. And her yes makes all the difference in the world. Her “yes” opens the way for God to become flesh and dwell among us. Her “yes” opens the way to the lifting up of the lowly, the scattering of the proud, the filling of the hungry with good things. Her “yes” has opened the way for the remembrance of the Lord’s mercy and the fulfillment of God’s promise to God’s people. Truly she is the best that humanity has to offer, and yet, her yes is not beyond our reach. How might you be called to say “yes” to God on this holy day, in this holy season?

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Advent 3B 2017

Advent 3B December 17, 2017 My husband likes to tell a story on himself. You may have even heard him tell it. As newlyweds, we moved to Mississippi from seminary in New York, and we started working in our first church together. As people tried to get to know us, they would ask David about his parents. He was often confused by this initially, and he would tell them his parents’ names, and then stop talking. His conversation partners would look at him confusedly as well, and the conversation would come to a screeching halt. Finally, I pulled him aside after witnessing one of these awkward conversations, and I said to him, “When they ask you “who are you parents?’ tell them you aren’t from here, but you married a girl from Canton. Then, when they ask, tell them about my parents.” So the next time the question came around, he tried it, and it worked like a dream. Because, and I suspect this is similar here in Savannah, folks weren’t really interested in the names of his parents. Instead, they were seeking to find out from him, “Who are you, and how might we be connected?” “Who are you?” is the question that John the Baptist gets in today’s gospel. And like David, he doesn’t really answer it well, either. He starts off by answering the question by telling them who he is not: “Are you the Messiah?” “No!” “Well, are you Elijah? “No!” “Ok, then, are you a prophet?” “No!” Then they say to him, “Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” He said, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’” as the prophet Isaiah said. John quotes scripture to explain who he is—that he is the one who is called to proclaim the coming of the Messiah. He is the one who testifies to the light, who points people toward Jesus, and helps them prepare for Jesus’s coming. In the reading from Isaiah today, I can’t help but hear the scriptural reference for Jesus’s own understanding of who he is, and the question that he answers in his early ministry in Nazareth, before it is even asked. (When he returns home to Nazareth in Luke’s gospel, he is handed the scroll of the prophet Isaiah, and he chooses to read a portion from today’s reading to answer the question who he is: “The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor…” Just as I was able to help David articulate an answer to the question “Who are you?” that would help him connect with his inquisitors, scripture can help us answer the question “who are you?” in a way that can help us connect to those around us to whom we may be called to point to the light, in a fashion similar to John the Baptist. I once heard a story about a portion of the letter to the Thessalonians for today. New Testament scholar and Bishop NT Wright talks about how he received a card at his ordination so many years ago with the line from 1 Thessalonians written on it: “The one who calls you is faithful.” This understanding has been key in my priesthood, especially in seasons when I have wandered in the wilderness and survived (and even flourished) solely by the grace of God. So, my invitation to you this week is to consider what scripture you would use if someone were to ask you the question “Who are you?” as it relates to your Christian journey? There is an abundance of scripture, and the task may seem overwhelming, so if you need a place to start, I suggest you start with the readings for today, see if any one of those speaks to your heart in a compelling way. As you embark on this journey of discerning what scripture speaks to you and helps you answer the question: “who are you?” may you rest in the assurance of the love of the God who created you, who knit you together in your mother’s womb, and who knows you infinitely better than you can ask or imagine. “For the one who calls you is faithful.”

Blue Christmas meditation 2017

Blue Christmas meditation December 16, 2017 When we moved to the Mississippi Gulf Coast in 2009, the senior warden of the church gave me a tour of the Coast. As we drove down Beach Blvd or Highway 90 which runs along the Gulf of Mexico, it was a rather barren landscape. Whole swaths or property were vacant or worse-- still had the remnants of buildings decimated by Hurricane Katrina. A few structures had been rebuilt at that point, but not many. And the senior warden, a life-long resident of Gulfport, talked to me about how he would sometimes get lost in Gulfport right after Katrina because all the street signs and most of the familiar landmarks were gone. It was a sad sight, and a sad story, as I prepared to begin my new life there among those people who were rebuilding their lives, their homes, their landscape, and their very world. But, then I noticed something else. The oak trees. They have oak trees much like we do here, with the lovely Spanish moss hanging off. Oaks that are a testament to strength, longevity, grace, and beauty. But there was something different about their oak trees. They were beaten and scarred. Some of them had weathered the storm surge and the beating of debris from Katrina and were still standing, albeit battered. Others, the senior warden told me, had fallen in the storm and couldn’t be saved. (Some of those had been left as a stump that a local artist made beautiful sculptures out of, but others were just gone) But still other oak trees, he said, had fallen on their sides with their massive roots exposed. And he and other people had gathered with their heavy machinery right after the storm, and they pushed those massive oak trees back upright, putting their roots back into the ground, and they prayed for the best. And many of those oak trees were thriving as we drove past and he pointed them out. Many of you are here at this service because you have lost someone or something, some important part of your life, and you are not feeling the joy of this holiday season. You may be here because your inner landscape feels like a wilderness, or you feel that you have become lost in your familiar life, where all the road signs and landmarks are gone or destroyed. It is where you are today, but it may not be where you will remain. And I am here to tell you today, that you are an oak of righteousness, that will be restored by God or by one of God’s messengers. It may not happen today, and it may not happen tomorrow. But you are not, nor will you be lost. God has not forgotten you. The reading from 1 Thessalonians today, which we didn’t read in the service tonight, has a line in it that I offer to you this night, to carry forward with you into the darkness like a light. “The one who calls you is faithful.” It is the heart of the gospel, and it this truth that will bear fruit in your life, if you will let it, in ways that you might never expect. Whatever it is that you are mourning, whatever it is that brings you here this night, may you imagine yourself like one of those mighty oak trees felled by Katrina, lying on its side. Now imagine God pushing you back upright to be living but changed, beaten but not broken, with your roots sunk firmly in the soil of God’s creation. Know that you are cherished by God, and that you will not be lost. For the one who calls you is faithful. Amen.