Sunday, August 20, 2017

Choosing to Connect

Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly. (Matthew 15:21-28)

In June, I met a guy from Tunisia, the first person I’ve ever met from that country. He picked us up on the Pont Marie in Paris. We were headed to the rental car desk at Charles de Gaulle airport. He spoke a little English, we barely spoke any French and no Arabic. He understood airport, but we were having trouble identifying the exact place at the airport we needed to stop. At CDG there is Terminal 1, Terminal 3, and then Terminals 2A, 2B, 2C, 2D, 2E, 2F, and 2G, all surrounded by a two-level highway reminiscent of a rollercoaster track.

Fortunately, we were able to speak with his boss by phone, who clarified that our drop off spot should be between Terminals 2E and 2F. That essential piece of business squared away, we settled in for a long ride.

My husband Tom is pretty good when we travel about initiating conversation and engaging with people in their language. He’s the one who actually studies the language ahead of time while I figure I will magically remember it all from my studies in 1971. Tom began to try out his French with the driver while I paged through my phrase book, staying well behind in the conversation. How long had the driver been in Paris, did he have family here, etc. Then it was the driver’s turn to as ask where we are from and how long are we staying?

The United States. Virginia. Not very far from Washington DC. Two weeks. Yes. Oui
The basics covered, we lapsed into silence.

Then the driver asked hopefully, do you have an h’oo-BEAR in Virginia? I frowned. I flipped through my French dictionary. h’OO-Bear. h’Oo-bear. I’m thinking about a quarterback. Tom looks at me and shrugs. Then the driver resorted to charades. “I (point) work (motion of driving car) for h’oo-BEAR. Do you have h’oo-BEAR in Virginia?”

Oh! Uber! He drives for Uber! Yes! Oui! We have Uber in Virginia! Nous avons h’oo-BEAR!

Connection made. We found something in common. We talked nearly nonstop the rest of the way. He showed us pictures of Tunisia on his phone - the seacoast with turquoise water and colorful boats, ancient Roman ruins in Carthage. He taught us how to correctly say some French words and we taught him some English pronunciations. We figured out how to make some little jokes and then laugh at them. 

Tom asked him if he felt more like a Tunisian or a Frenchman after living in France for 9 years. The driver immediately said, "Both. It is like having a mother and a father. Tunisia is like my father. France is like my mother. I love them both. They are both good to me. No need to choose which is better. They are both better."

We were all smiles when we reached our rental car. It had been a real joy to find a way to connect for a little while with someone so different from us, to share not only a ride but ourselves. To learn from and to teach, give and take, finding a commonality in something as small as the use of the same ride-sharing service. We didn't need to talk about Muslim and Christian or about Arab and Anglo or about politics - none of which we were likely to have in common. We talked about how beautiful the Mediterranean Sea is. How bold those “moto" drivers are whizzing past us on two wheels between lanes. How great it is to love both your mother, your mere, and your father, your pere. How great it is to learn how to say Thank you for teaching us to speak your language. We parted with the words Merci, merci, bon voyage! Have a good trip! Merci!

I like that the French word for thank you is “merci.” Of course I think of mercy. Because as I traveled around, bumbling with the language, needing help all the time with practically everything, it felt so right to say to everyone, Merci. For me it was not just “thank you,” but “thank you for having mercy on me. Thank you for your kindness as I struggle. Thank you for being merciful instead of impatient.”

Jesus almost missed his chance to make a connection with the Canaanite woman. He focused on their differences. She never denied there were differences. She just said, have mercy. That’s all I’m asking. Fortunately, when she showed him their connection, he remembered his mercy and forgot his impatience, and they understood each other. Despite their differences, they chose to connect. He was a Jew and she was a Canaanite and it turned out that there was no need to take sides, to choose which is better. They were both better. 

Tuesday, August 15, 2017


At the High Altar at Chartres Cathedral, France

O God, you have taken to yourself the blessed Virgin Mary, mother of your incarnate Son: Grant that we, who have been redeemed by his blood, may share with her the glory of your eternal kingdom; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Serious business, weighty words

Yesterday, right here in the church, we received five beautiful children into this household of God, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. One of them was sporting sparkly silver hightop tennis shoes. Another wore an elaborate family heirloom Christening gown - all of them fresh from heaven trailing clouds of glory as Claudia and I poured the waters of baptism over their heads and sealed them with oil to mark them as Christ’s own forever. 

We gathered as a body and heard the story of Jesus being baptized himself, and how God proclaimed at that moment that Jesus is the beloved belongs to God and how there is nothing we can do to earn or lose the love and pleasure God takes in our belovedness. We took or reaffirmed our baptismal vows. We promised to continue to gather together for prayer, for nourishment in the Eucharistic feast, for teaching and learning from our Scriptures. We promised to persevere in resisting evil and whenever we fall into sin to repent and return to the Lord. 

We promised to proclaim through our words and through our actions the Good News of our salvation - that God loves everyone. We promised to seek the face of Christ and serve the person of Christ in all the people of the whole world, to love our neighbors as ourselves. We promised to strive for justice and peace and to respect the dignity of every single human being. We promised to support the children and their families and to nurture them as they grow and live among us through their joys and their trials. 

These promises are our job description as Christians, individually and as a community. We make them in the knowledge that we, too, are God’s beloved.

We heard the story and we made these promises as we gathered around the light of Christ, symbolized by the Paschal candle, its flame steady over our heads, the beacon of the household of God.

Baptisms are joyous occasions. We all love seeing the children and their families, we love the looks of wonder in their faces reflected in the font as they gaze at those gathered around them. We love their outfits.

But this business is still serious business: being marked as Christ’s own forever, of coming through the waters of baptism just as the Israelites did when they were led through the sea, out of bondage - out of their slavery - in Egypt.

These words we speak are weighty and profound: Love; Justice; Peace; Dignity; Evil; Sin; Repent; Prayer. These promises are elemental and could be even dangerous - what does it mean to be the light of Christ in the world around us?

At baptism, we recognize that water is both life-giving and dangerous. In it, we can be cleansed or we can drown. It can support us and it can sink us. The ancient people of the earliest Bible stories knew the fearful power of water, where chaos reigned, where the great Leviathan lived, and they rejoiced (read Psalm 18 for a dramatic account) that their God controlled the thunderbolts and rode black clouds through the storm to swoop down and save them when they were afraid and overwhelmed. They well knew the story of the great flood and how only one family survived the rising waters by being sealed up in a little boat.

Biblical scholars are not all in agreement about whether or not Jesus wants the disciples to stay in the boat or not in our Gospel reading today. Some say that Matthew always stresses community and how it is important to remain united in the community for safety and freedom. They should stay in the boat together, so of course Peter fails because he gets out.

Others declare that since Jesus commands Peter to come to him through the waters of the storm - to get out of the boat - then Jesus is calling us as individuals and as a community to take risks for his sake. Because following Jesus really can be risky. 

But Peter loses faith and fails. Therefore, some focus on the need for keeping one’s eyes on Jesus whatever we do, deepening our faith and piety. 

A case can be made for all of these. There doesn’t have to be one answer.

But honestly, this story is not primarily about Peter or about the boat anyway. As in most Gospel stories, our focus really should be on Jesus. This story is another take on Psalm 18. The Great I AM comes through the chaos where we are floundering helplessly in the wake of whatever is overwhelming us right now - and reaches out for us and pulls us to safety. 

Jesus pulls Peter to safety whether or not getting out of the boat was a good idea, whether or not Peter was in the wrong place at the wrong time, whether or not he messed up by not being faithful enough or by thinking he could walk on water.  Jesus pulls Peter through the storm to safety because Peter is his beloved. Jesus pulls him to safety because that’s what Our Lord does. It’s who Our Lord is. Our savior. 

Storms are going to overwhelm us. We are going to feel afraid. But Our Lord comes to us in our fear and reaches out for us because we are his beloved.

That said, I’ve always been one who believes that following Jesus means I’m going to have to get out of the boat sometimes. I’m going to have to follow him into some chaos, into some place I might be scared to go. I am often tempted to stay in the boat, but sometimes I’ve got to step out. And the only way I can muster up the courage to do that is by believing that Our Lord will reach out and save me if I become overwhelmed. That Our Lord will save me even if I am wrong. Even if I meant well but messed up royally in my efforts. Because I am his beloved. Because that’s the promise in which I have faith.

This morning there is much that feels overwhelming to me. During the week I have sat with the dying and the bereaved. I have felt the shock of sudden death and dire diagnoses. I have worried about the possibility of war. And yesterday I watched with horror the images coming in from Charlottesville, images embedded in the sin of racism, people with distorted hateful faces bearing weapons and gathered around and illuminated by the light of torches carried with the intent of intimidation; crashes and fire and blood; violence; death. Where is the peace that God speaks to his people? Where are the beautiful feet of the one who brings good news?

But take heart, Jesus says, it is I who comes to you in your despair over the fearsome sea. Through the life-giving dangerous waters of baptism all we have come, some with beautiful feet wearing sparkly shoes, our faces illuminated by the light of Christ, the steady flame of the Paschal candle that is the sign and beacon of the household of God. Christ comes to us to save us through any storm when we are losing hope. This is good news, the promise that God is with us. 

And in response, we have promised to be the messengers of good news ourselves - with God’s help. We have promised to uphold one another in love. We have promised to resist evil. We have promised to repent when we fall into sin. We have promised justice, dignity, respect, love for all God’s beloveds.  We have promised prayer. We have promised peace. 

These are weighty words and we may fail miserably trying to live up to them, but following Jesus, living into my baptismal vows, means I’ve got to try. Maybe I try by encouraging others in the boat. Maybe I try to getting out of the boat and taking a risk. Whatever I try, I try with God’s help.

I’m going to take part in a vigil downtown at 3rd Street Bethel AME church this Wednesday evening at 6:30. It is sponsored by the same congregations that joined with us when we showed the movie 13th here at St. Stephen’s. I invite you to join me and other people of faith to stand against bigotry and to repent the sin of racism.

Maybe this will be stepping out of the boat, or maybe this will be steering the boat together toward justice. Either way, this is how I will live out my baptismal vows right now. We will mourn the dead and the injured and we will pray for justice,  respect and dignity. 

May our beacon be the light of Christ shining over against the torches of hate. May we light the way for justice and walk in the way of peace. May we repent the evil we have done and the evil we have failed to challenge. And when we are floundering in our grief and in our paralysis in the face of whatever overwhelms us, may we call upon our Lord to save us in sure and certain knowledge that he will.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

The Parable of the Wheat and the Weeds (Psst: It's not about gardening)

A wheat field overlooking the English Channel near Omaha Beach, Normandy

The parable of the wheat and the weeds is one of my favorites. Honestly, I think this is mostly because I grew up, uncomfortably, in a family that over the generations professed to believe that if someone doesn’t behave the right way, it is incumbent on "someone" to kick this person out of the family. It might be a temporary thing - sort of like shunning or ostracizing - just until the person gave in and started acting right again or it might be more permanent - being disowned. Mostly it was used as a threat, I think, but it was just one of the things that my forebears thought meet and right so to do.

It was not until I was an independent adult that someone said to me, incredulously, when I casually mentioned this family tendency, “People can’t just kick someone out of their family!” 

“They can’t?” I replied, just as incredulously. “No!” was the answer. “You’re born into a family and that can’t be undone, just like you can’t become unbaptized.”

Well, this created some cognitive dissonance, I’ll tell you. My understanding and experience was that “kicking someone out of the family” was a thing. I’d seen it and I’d never questioned it. But it felt so wonderful to hear someone say, “Hey, that’s not right. No one can kick you out of your family!”

And so I love this parable. I love that Jesus (Jesus! not just somebody on the internet) says, “when you try to pull up the weeds, you risk damaging the wheat. Your zeal to dig out the bad can hurt the very roots of the good. So leave it alone and let God sort it out.”

When I began to study the Gospel of Matthew, I began to understand why this parable is only told in that Gospel. Matthew’s community - the Jews who were followers of Jesus - seems to have been kicked out of the synagogue after the Temple was destroyed by the Romans. This was a fragile community that had suffered the pain of separation from its family and by turns seemed plaintive - and also vindictive. We are a small minority here, and so yes, let God sort it out - and take heart that those who hurt us are going to be the ones in the fire gnashing their teeth!

Well, I can relate. 

And then there are the purity issues. From ancient times, there have been purity movements to rid communities of those with different beliefs or customs or religions or whatever. Spain expelled first the Jews and then the Muslims and then the Jews or Muslims who had converted to Christianity under duress; Crusades were launched against Infidels in the Holy Land and the Inquisition was popping up all over Europe; and in the 20th century, horrific ethnic cleansing was unleashed in Bosnia, Sudan, Germany. Efforts to “cleanse” a community tore it to pieces, and for what?

Is this what God wants?

Nonetheless, I recognize that some thorny issues arise when I try to move the application of this parable from family and community to a larger scale. The other day I saw the side by side satellite photos of Mosul taken before and after the 9-month siege to oust ISIS from the city. Buildings reduced to rubble everywhere. And I saw the photos of the children and elderly men and women who were trapped between the two sides and suffered injury, terror, and death.

I remember the phrase from the Vietnam era. “We had to destroy the village in order to save it.”

When we were in France in June, standing next to a wheat field overlooking the English Channel near Omaha Beach, listening to our guide relate the events before and during the D-Day invasion, I was struck by the enormity of the number of civilian casualties caused by Allied bombing in Normandy. And yet, we spoke with French citizens who still welcome Americans and British visitors so warmly, saying, yes, many innocents died along with the many soldiers, but it couldn’t be helped. Thank you for coming to our aid, thank you for liberating us from captivity.

And hear the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who turned around from his safe haven in the United States to return to Germany to work against Hitler in 1939 because, he said,  “If I see a madman driving a car into a group of innocent bystanders, then I can’t simply wait for the catastrophe and then comfort the wounded and bury the dead. I must try to wrestle the steering wheel out of the hands of the driver.”

So this is complicated and messy. Are we really not called to root out evil? I am uneasy with the implications either way.

I honestly don’t know. I know we are called to resist evil - our baptismal vows require it. I know that we are called to build up the kingdom - Jesus says this every day. I know that Jesus said he had other sheep he must call into the fold with us. I know that God does not desire the death of anyone, including the wicked - that crazy prophet Ezekiel, who is not known for his warmth and fuzziness, says so. I know that some people cannot tell a potato vine from poison ivy.

And I know that killing makes us killers, that the trauma of violence tears people and communities and society apart. The ripples created by trauma spread out far and wide to lap on very distant shores.

Getting involved with evil can damage us so that in the end we might not be able to tell if we ourselves are wheat or weeds. Think of our soldiers who have been traumatized, who are unable to cope with life at home after what they have been through. Think of the bitterness that takes root in the lives of people who have kicked someone out of their family in order to distance themselves from what they believe to be immorality. Think of the hate that people spew towards one another as they proclaim the other to be a weed. It becomes hard to tell the wheat from the weeds, and everything seems so messy and tangled up.

This is not to be taken lightly.

I don't think Jesus is suggesting we just sit there and do nothing, though in the face of evil - certainly we are called to do justice and love mercy. And people like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mother Teresa and Mohandas Ghandi have shown us that non-violent resistance or working for positive change is not rolling over and doing nothing.

What Jesus does say is that, yes, there are always weeds but we've got other things with which to concern ourselves. Tending to the weeds is not our job. 

Our job is tending to the business of bearing good fruit ourselves. Elsewhere in this Gospel, Jesus emphasizes the necessity of bearing good fruit. By their fruits you will know them, he says. 

It's a matter of focus, perhaps, but this is an important distinction. We can spend our time focusing on bad people and bad things, of the distraction of “what if’s” and “yeah buts,” or we can spend our time focusing on bringing forth good fruit ourselves.

So how do we do that?

Well, as I said, it begins with focus and moves forward with action. Looking for what God is doing in the world, where God is bringing good out of disaster, and then doing what we can to work with God in that endeavor. We have to develop the eyes to see God at work instead of allowing our gaze to fixate on the stuff or people we wish would go away and thus infecting ourselves with bitterness and hate. We have to learn to listen for God, to see God at work and then join God in that work. 

Perhaps we regularly give blood in times of war (which is always). Perhaps we work in preventative care for our environment, for public health, or education. Perhaps we focus on feeding the hungry and befriending the stranger and visiting the sick and providing sanctuary. Perhaps we work on developing the courage to stand up for the least of these in the public square against those who would mercilessly shove them aside. 

Perhaps we let go of our need to protect God from the ungodly. (God doesn't need our protection.)

Perhaps we let go of our need to be saviors. (We already have one.)

None of that is sitting idly by.

Our job is to work at building up the kingdom as well as we can, to bear good fruit ourselves, knowing that we are broken people living in a broken world and that we may not be able to live up to our ideals, but nevertheless trusting that in the end, truly, God will make things right.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Monday, July 3, 2017

The New Colossus

This is the poem that is engraved on the Statue of Liberty in New York harbor. It was written by Emma Lazarus in 1883 and placed on a bronze plaque on the statue's base in 1903.

Happy Birthday, America!

The New Colossus

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
"Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

-Emma Lazarus

Friday, June 30, 2017

Come unto me all ye who are thirsty

Who says monks don't have a sense of humor? 
Seen at Mont St Michel along the stairway up to the Abbey.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Happy Birthday, Sally and Bella!

Well, technically, it's one of their birthdays and yesterday was the other's. 

Three years of fun with these two girls.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

John, is that you?

Today is the feast of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist. Normally, we see John as a something of a wild man, but in this painting by Leonardo da Vinci from 1513-1516 and believed to be da Vinci's last painting, John is showing what I like to think of as his inner Fabio.

Needless to say, not everyone likes this version of John. He's too pretty, they say. He smiles like the Mona Lisa. This guy doesn't seem likely to call people a brood of vipers! We already have a vision of what John the Baptist is supposed to look like and here goes Leonardo messing with our preconceived notions.

We saw this at the Louvre a couple of weeks ago. It was restored in 2016, allowing some of the details (like John's fur pelt, which is mostly obscured in this photo through glass) to "pop out" as the art critics like to say. I like it. And I like how it made me question my biases and expectations.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

The Common Wood Pigeon

Tom and I just got back from two weeks in France. On day one, I encountered the common wood pigeon. At first I thought it must be some kind of exotic - the largest dove I'd ever seen and with a large white collar. The pair that were hanging out in our courtyard in Paris were large and loud and almost sounded like owls.

But then I began to see and hear them everywhere and realized that in fact they are "just" your run of the mill wood pigeons. Not at all unusual. As our time in France went on, we saw more and more of them. Still, their size, their songs, and their grace in flying reminded me that none of God's creatures are common, even if there are lots of them.

This is the first "common wood pigeon" I saw in France. It was bathing in the fountain behind Notre Dame cathedral. Fitting, I think: saying this bird is common is like saying that Notre Dame is just a church.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

The astonishing day we caught fire (a sermon for the Day of Pentecost)

Today is one of the great feast days of the church, Pentecost. A word which all you Latin scholars know means 50. As in the 50th day after Easter. 

That has to be the worst name ever for what we are about today. As if we all come together to say, “Yay! It’s the 50th day after Easter! We changed the color from white to red!”

There is tradition behind the name. In Judaism, the religion of Jesus, the 50th day after Passover commemorates the giving of the Law on Mount Sinai, a vitally important aspect of the continuing life of the Jewish people. This festival was called different things in different languages - Shavuot in Hebrew, the Festival of Weeks in English, and Pentecost in Greek. It was on that day of Pentecost that today’s reading from Acts took place, and ever after, for Christians, the day has been known as the day the Holy Spirit was bestowed upon the followers of Jesus.

Honestly, though, that exposition is way too flat and dry for what we are about today, which is both mysterious and astonishing, described not so much by words as by fire and wind. The Holy Spirit is the “giver of life” as we say in the Creed and it is, in essence, Holy Power. It is the infinite, creative, power of self-giving love.

This is the same power that in the beginning moved over the chaos and the deep and created and formed the Earth, that breathed life into the nostrils of mortals formed of clay, that held back the waters of the Red Sea to set the subjugated free, and bulldozed a highway through the wilderness to lead the captives home from exile. The power that caused a baby to be born in Bethlehem who grew into a man who healed the sick and fed the hungry and found the lost and broke the social tabus of the day. This is the power that on the third day raised that man from the dead. 

This holy power dynamically breaks through all barriers - physical and social - for the singular purpose of giving life. And now it is given to us.

This giving of life is not only vital but absolutely urgent. The signs of it can be bewildering and unsettling, found bringing healing and goodness wherever there is suffering and brokenness, from war zones to our own homes. The power and love from the Spirit is not just given but it is poured out abundantly, overflowing like wine at the wedding at Cana, multiplying like loaves and fishes on the mountain. 

So this is irrepressible power we’re talking about here, not tame stuff. “Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke?” cries writer Annie Dillard. “It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For… God may draw us out to where we can never return.” 

When Jesus breathes on people, it’s not just to comfort them, but to give them power to come out from behind locked doors and lives of fear and despair, blowing them out into the world to insist on giving food to the hungry and health to the sick and rest to the weary and companionship to the prisoner and sanctuary to the stranger. In my mind’s eye I see them staggering out of a house slightly skewed off its foundation with the door off the hinge, adjusting their blasted clothing and smoothing stumps of singed hair, hearts aflame, thrilled with the scary, eager to tell everyone how absolutely wonderful this new life is and determined to give it to others.

Folks like us Episcopalians are a little wary this kind of talk. As Barbara Brown Taylor puts it, “We don’t keep the Spirit of life in the back room because she is shy but because she is dangerous.” So let’s just call it the Day of Pentecost, not “the astonishing day we caught fire.”

Nobody knows more about what it is like for life to be utterly upended and transformed and thrilled with the scary than the folks sitting in these front rows here. The coming of a child into your life rocks your world. These little people who are still fresh from heaven, trailing clouds of glory, have the power to unleash the fire of fierce, primal love like nothing else. They will change your life and your world in ways you cannot even imagine now.

How appropriate it is, then, to baptize them on this feast day celebrating the dangerous and irrepressible and holy power of love that binds us all together as the people of God. Let us all together with them breathe in the breath of Jesus (that is, Latin again, to be inspired) to galvanize as a people to live out our call to love our neighbors and cherish creation, the work of God’s own hands. 

So come Holy Spirit, to seal us as a people. Fire us with longing for justice and mercy, for building community, establishing harmony, and restoring trust. Move us to stand up bravely for those who are abused and broken. And charge us to break through whatever barriers we need to break through with our own holy fire and astonish the world with your love.



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