Monday, September 27, 2021

Prayer, day 3161

Lord of Life and Light,
we thank You for watching over this world
as it has turned from day to night.
We thank You for watching over us
as we rested through the night,
and we lift our hearts to you in the gathering light.

We bow the knee of our hearts,
confessing our failings
and the times we have hurt others
through carelessness or fear.

Guide us in the spirit of gentleness and faith
to see the beauty of your imprint in all we see
in the rosy light of dawn.
Give us healing hands and compassionate hearts:
help us to see ourselves
in the plight of those in trouble.
Help us to choose healing over hurt,
and unity over division,
and hope over despair.

Lord Jesus,
abide within our hearts,
and set our feet
upon the paths of peace and justice.

Anoint us by your love, O Holy One,
and envelop within your healing embrace
those for whom we pray.


Sunday, September 26, 2021

The Witness of Intention: Sermon for the 18th Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 21B)

Our readings today have stories of enemies, jealousies, and rivalry coming through them. There are some harsh images in the harsh for such a beautiful day. But certainly relatable in the fractured, divided time in which we live.

In the first part of our gospel, the apostles see someone not affiliated with Jesus nonetheless doing the deeds that Jesus promised his disciples they could do—casting out demons and healing people of their suffering. This is not a story of a magician (code word for pagan) performing magic that was. In competition with the Jesus movement. No—it clearly states that this person was acting in Jesus’s name.

Debie Thomas talks about the fact that what the disciples are complaining about is that, to them, proper procedure is not being followed-- and God knows Episcopalians in particular are allll about procedure sometimes. The disciples here are all standing around saying “Who is dis guy???” and feeling that he or she is stealing their thunder. They have completely lost sight of the fact that this person, acting in Jesus’s name, is doing Jesus’s work, and is bringing about hope and healing where previously none existed. She puts the issue this way: rather than not being a known follower of Jesus, they are complaining that he is not following THEM and placing himself under their supervision.

Jesus's answer to them is the phrase that jumps out to me as being important to hear right now: Whoever is not against us is for us.

In 2021, we just memorialized the 20th anniversary of the September 11 attacks on New York, Virginia across the river from Washington DC, and Shanksville, Pennsylvania, probably on the way to DC had the passengers and remaining crew not risen up and interfered. A somber anniversary, one reminding us of a day that changed us in so many ways, some good, and some bad.

One of the things I remember from those somber days come to me in flashes: the relief I felt when my dear friend’s daughter who had been in Manhattan on a business trip finally arrived home days later. The sacrifices of first responders. The rapt attention of students as we processed what had happened in the days and weeks that followed. The concerts. The anxiety and even tears of kids whose parents or siblings were in the National Guard or Reserve, and who got their orders for Afghanistan. The long lines to donate blood. The concerts to support the families who had lost loved ones.

But one of my memories that touched me deeply was the prayer service held on September 23 in Yankee Stadium for the missing and the dead. Representatives from the Jewish, Roman Catholic, Sikh, Muslim, Greek Orthodox, and various Protestant leaders, as well as famous musicians, joined together to pray and remember. It was a beautiful coming together, a defiant declaration of kinship and love in action in response to the attempt to divide and destroy.

However, one of the ministers who took part in that truly interfaith prayer service was later censured by his denomination. They saw praying with non-Christians as akin to fully approving what they called “paganism”—itself a provocative word. In the end, their arguments ran along the lines of “By praying with Muslims, you prayed to the Muslim (small- g) god.” Their claim was that the Muslim god is different.

Yet here is the first reality we have to consider: different languages by definition use different words. In Arabic, the name Allah simply means “God.” Christians who live in places where Arabic is the language also pray to “Allah.” But secondly, do we really want to claim there is more than one God—all in contention with each other? Or do we not proclaim each and every time we worship liturgically, that there is ONE God, revealed for Christians through Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, true, but one God and Creator of all that is?

To my mind, the objection against praying with anyone who doesn’t believe EXACTLY what you do is, really, as we would say back home, “There ain’t no such thing.” There’s a famous saying—wherever you have two Episcopalians in a room, you have five opinions.” We belong to a branch of the Jesus movement that embraces that ambiguity and openness to matters of practice. We consider intention to be a vital consideration in judging the rightness of an action. And that’s what we hear in our gospel today.

Note the complete details of the situation: someone is performing deeds of healing who has not been previously seen following Jesus. And yet listen carefully to the words used to describe those healing actions: they are being performed “in Jesus’s name.” Whoever they are doesn’t matter—the reason they are doing these things DOES. They are healing and restoring for the glory of God, and God’s dream of healing, reconciliation, restoration, relief, compassion. For the restoration of people to community. For shalom: peace, wholeness, being at ease. As testimony to Jesus’s teaching and witness and example. Whether they’ve completed all the classwork or joined the right clubs doesn’t change the love behind their actions in the least—it might even make it MORE praiseworthy.

From the earliest years of the Church of England’s separation from the Roman church, its great theologians held to a doctrine called “adiaphora.” It comes from the Greek word meaning “indifferent.” It doesn’t mean that one is indifferent to matters of theology, but suggests that in worship practices that are essential versus those that are not. If you visit parishes within our diocese, you will see a wide variety of ways to worship on Sunday: some use incense, and some do not. Some only pray in Elizabethan language, and some use a much more modern vernacular. Some have loads of glorious artwork, like we do, and some have a plain brick building and plain white walls. Even within a parish, you will see some people genuflecting and others not; some people dressed to the nines and others coming as they are. All matters of preference, not commandment. But you will always see people seeking to understand how to walk in the path of Jesus.

It is intention that matters, and intention that witnesses to the glory of God. When those religious leaders of a wide variety of faiths gathered in those dark days twenty years ago, their intention was not to put forward some sort of competition to see whose practices were the greatest, much less the “only.” They were insisting that people of all backgrounds were lost on that terrible day, and that people of all backgrounds could join together in laying their devastation and also their resilient faith on the line together. That as members of the only race that matters— the human race-- the wounds of one person affect us all. The death of one person affects us all. What better way to deny the goals of those terrorists to destroy us and to divide us than to come together faithfully and deny their attempt to use death as a tool by re-committing ourselves to life, to decency, to the respect and dignity of every person—including those who pray, and even vote, differently than we do?

That last phrase might sound familiar to you, especially today. It is one of the eight questions we answer in our baptismal covenant: Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?

And indeed, those questions we affirm each time we renew this Covenant, from the first time or for the hundredth time, describe what truly is important in matters of our religious or spiritual life. Continuing in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, the breaking of bread, and the prayers means Living a life of commitment to others and to your own development: it means committing ourselves as individuals to being part of a worshiping community that you may continue to grow deeper in your life of faith. Persevering in resisting evil means it is NOT better to apologize than to ask permission, it means listening to your conscience and being guided by it to avoid hurting others and having to make amends later. Proclaiming by word and example the good news of Jesus means realizing that all that those who call themselves Christian say and do is a testimony to the world of who Jesus is. It means that everything we do, we do in Jesus’s name—including the times we do things we ought not to do. Nothing makes Jesus look as bad to a world deeply unfamiliar with Jesus’s radical love and acceptance more than seeing his followers openly behaving as if they have no intention of embodying his values, either. When the Church violates Jesus’s example, we can’t be surprised that the world turns away in disbelief. Seeking and serving Christ in all persons means being among those who challenge us, who reject us, who are different from us, and yet seeing Christ’s face shining out from their faces, calling us to embrace him through embracing them.

Jesus’s gospel is radical BECAUSE it challenges the life to which we are accustomed. Jesus’s gospel is radical because its power in centered in being a person for others, and not for ourselves; in giving, rather than taking; in seeing the interconnectedness of all life in God’s good creation rather than fighting against everyone else as a competitor and enemy for scarce resources and privileges. Jesus calls us to transformation of our transactional natures. And that is absolutely counter-cultural. The fact is, if you are not confounded at least ten times a day as you attempt to live this life of following Jesus, you are not paying attention. We live in a world where our leaders have proclaimed in times of crisis, “Whoever is not with us is against us,” and there are times when that is true—like when we are silent in the face of violence and oppression. When we proclaim, as one religious leader did recently, that of course we are against sexual abuse committed by ministers, but not if it destroys our denomination to openly investigate that abuse. (2) This axiom is useful when applied to harmful behavior. 
Jesus is looking at good works in his comment, though. 

When Christians are more interested in claiming they belong to an exclusive club than in engaging in the hard work of loving people, you get alienation of the world from God’s dream of fellowship and amity among people. Mahatma Gandhi, who was no slouch when it came to standing up for the powerless and living a spiritual life with intention, once was asked by a missionary what would help bring more Indians to embrace Christianity. He suggested that Christians, from missionaries to political leaders, begin to live more like Jesus Christ. Consider that for a moment. If you think that is not practical, then admit to yourself that Jesus will never be the solution until Christians stop being part of the problem.

When someone is accomplishing the reconciling and loving work that Jesus embodied, whether they have all the right credentials or not, they are advancing Jesus’s life and mission in the world. That’s what we commit to do today—and every day. As we celebrate the welcoming of our newest Christian today, sweet little Clementine, we stand around her and promise to teach her how to live like Jesus. 

And the way we best do that is by doing it ourselves, knowing that she is learning by watching us. 

What a gift.

Preached at the 10:30 service, held in limited number in person for a baptism, and broadcast online at 10:30 am on September 26, 2021 at St. Martin's Episcopal Church, Ellisville.


1) Debie Thomas, “Hosts, Not Bouncers,” at Journey with Jesus, 19 September 2021.
2) See the comments by Joe Knott, member of the Executive Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention, paraphrased in this article.

Prayer, day 3160 : The 18th Sunday after Pentecost

Most Merciful God,
we gather around your altar
to worship and give you thanks,
praising your wondrous love.
Help us, Lord Jesus,
always to remember your call to community and grace
formed in the name of Christ
and bearing your truth,
that we be generous and compassionate with each other,
loving each other as you love us.
Knit us together as one,
dedicated to your covenant of hope and mercy,
that we may never be a stumbling block to any
and be welcoming to all who seek our fellowship.
By the power of the Holy Spirit,
make us salt in the world, Blessed Jesus,
a holy offering and a priestly people
embodying your gospel with integrity.
Press the seal of your blessing
upon all who seek you, O God,
and especially on those we now name.


Sunday, September 5, 2021

The Wisdom of Vulnerability: Sermon for the 15th Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 18B)

A group of rabbis gathered one day after a long day of studying the Book of Bereshit, which we call the Book of Genesis. The question that was before them was this one: Why had God waited until the sixth day of creation to create human beings?

Rabbi Rivkah said, “God wanted to make sure the universe was well ordered and operating smoothly, so that we could make use of creation, made for our benefit.” Several of her companions nodded in agreement. Certainly the marvels of the universe had been made for the use of human beings, who had been given dominion over all things on Earth.

Rabbi Chaim said, “Perhaps, perhaps. But God started with animals so that God could learn from God’s earlier attempts. God waited to make humans so that God wouldn’t make the mistakes God made with the various animals and their weaknesses.” Other rabbis nodded in agreement with him. Surely human beings were the crowning achievement of creation, with the ability to talk, and to think, unlike stupid animals!

Rabbi Susan, known for her humility a well as her wisdom, arrived a few moments into the meeting, apologizing profusely. She was running late because she had been engaged in prayers before the sun set. She asked what they were debating about so intently. “We are discussing why God waited until the sixth day to create human beings,” Rabbi Akiva told her. They repeated the two premises put forward by Rabbi Rivkah and Rabbi Chaim.

Rabbi Susan thought for a moment. A dog whined outside in the street, and a mosquito whined past the ear of one of the other rabbis, and he swatted at it forcefully. “I wonder if the answer is more simple. I think it was so that when we were filled with pride, we would remember that even a lowly dog and the annoying mosquito were awarded priority in the grand scheme of the Divine Creator.” And all the other rabbis took what she said, and pondered it for the rest of their lives.

Our readings today focus on two qualities: humility, and wisdom. We begin with a brief collection of verses from the Book of Proverbs. The backstory behind this collection of sayings was that they were written by King Solomon himself. As you know, Solomon was crowned with power and honor: he had hundreds of wives and concubines; he lived in a magnificent palace, and he was the son of the great King David.

Yet, if you remember three weeks ago, when he ascended to the throne, Solomon prayed to God for help in governing God’s people. In a dream God appeared to Solomon and told Solomon to ask God for what he wanted God to grant to him. Solomon could have asked for untold wealth, or military power, or an exceptionally long life and reign. Instead, the new king humbly compared himself to a little child, not up to the task of leading so great a people. Solomon therefore asked for wisdom, so that he could be a good king to protect the people and lead them. God was pleased not just by the thoughtfulness of the answer, but by its humility. Solomon didn’t ask for things for himself, but for a gift that would benefit his people. So God granted Solomon wisdom, and his sage judgment was famous far and wide. Solomon’s humility, his openness to admitting his lack of perception and knowledge, was the beginning of his wisdom.

The proverbs before us are likewise focused on wisdom and humility themselves. Specifically, they depict the wisdom of being generous, just, and hospitable in one’s relationships with others. The wisdom of being open to each other. In the social system of the early Mediterranean world, social division and status was very important—much like our society today. Just like now, there were many ways to close oneself off from those considered lowly or unclean. All these centuries later, we too have the same many ways to separate ourselves from each other—by race, class, ethnicity, ability or disability, wealth and poverty. Those who are considered to be “less-than,” like the poor or immigrants, become invisible—if they are lucky. If they are not lucky enough to be invisible they become objects of scorn, exploitation, and scapegoating.

You’ve seen and heard this done over and over by people around you—some even claiming to be leaders. Businesses that pay starvation wages complain that they can’t find workers, and so smear all of them as lazy rather than consider that the wages they pay do not allow for a person to make even a modest living and pay all of their bills. Lately there’s even been the claim that the $300 a week jobless benefits are actually rewards for laziness. There are public school districts ending breakfast programs because they claim it will make children dependent on handouts for the rest of their lives. The reasons stated for this decision runs like this I guess: Better for seven-year-olds to suffer from the pain and distraction of hunger right now than to expect that the wealthiest country in the world owes them anything. 

I’ve always appreciated the humility and wisdom of leaders who actually try to walk a mile in the shoes of those at the bottom of the income scale—like when members of Congress try to eat for a week only on the benefits given through food stamps, or try to find an apartment for 25% of the income of a minimum wage job. I hope that, on this Labor Day weekend, as we all enjoy our time off, we remember a prayer often said in the Compline service, and humbly pray that we honor the labor of workers, no matter how humble, who make our common lives together possible.

Thus we hear the author reminding us that whether we are rich or poor, we are all children of God, created in God’s image. We are told not to exploit the poor or take advantage of them, or for those who sit at the gate—which is where people would plead for justice if they had been treated unfairly or unjustly. Applied to our own time, one in which so many people are behaving without regard for anything, but loudly proclaim their own grievances, their own rights to do as they please, regardless of the harm to others, our proverbs remind us to remain humble as the foundation of our relationships with each other and as a reflection of our relationship with God.

Likewise our psalm urges us to another set of characteristics that are the basis of wisdom and generosity: trust and honesty. Once again, gifts that seem to be in short supply these days. Our psalm reminds us that the ability to trust and be trustworthy is a sign of strength, not weakness. The letter of James urges us to treat every person with honor—not based on what they can do for us, but based on the love we are called to bear for each and every person, which includes taking care of those who have needs as much as we are able—and we often have more ability to do this than we might like to admit.

Look, it’s easy for us to forget sometimes that we have the power to make the lives of those around us better or worse, often by the simplest recognition that here, around me are other people all beloved of God and beloved of their families and friends. All precious.

Even Jesus has to be reminded of this sometimes. In our gospel reading today, we have two stories of healing. One is of a man unable to hear—Jesus commands his hearing and his speech to be “opened.” There is Jesus, the miracle worker using his divine power to help someone on the margins of society toward full healing and restoration. But if you look carefully, the story before it informs this command to be open. In the story before this healing, Jesus himself had to be goaded into being open to another. We just for a second get a glimpse of Jesus as a human being—prone to all the weariness and challenges we all face.

Jesus has entered Gentile territory to the north hoping for a little R and R, his own version of Labor Day. Maybe if he goes up into Tyre and Sidon, no one will recognize him, and he can move about anonymously for a while until his batteries recharge. Yet no sooner does he get there, and settles into a house to cocoon for a bit, than some woman approaches him and bows down at his feet, cringing like a dog. And so, frustrated and exhausted, he looks on this woman from a wealthy region coming to dare ask him, an impoverished Jew, for healing, and he calls her just that. He calls her a dog, and declares her outside his mission to God’s chosen people. The bounty of his mercy is reserved for his own people, who have hard enough lives as it is. For a moment, his tiredness gets the best of him, and he claims that there’s not enough to go around. There’s not enough of Jesus to go around. And here this woman is, a cross between a mosquito and a dog, annoying Jesus with her request and her refusal to be shaken off.

Here it is the woman who displays humility and wisdom. Even as he tries to belittle her, to cast her as an outsider and unworthy, still she presses on. Maybe because she is not asking out of need for herself, but need for her beloved daughter. Still bowed down at his feet, she responds immediately: Yes, I may be a dog-- but even dogs get to eat the scraps that fall from the table. And that image of a table is a reminder of the abundance and mercy that Jesus has been proclaiming and enacting just so people won’t miss the point that God’s generosity and love for us is unlimited and life-giving. She reminds Jesus of the same thing our proverbs did: that we are called to be open, and generous with each other, rather than try to draw lines around who is worthy and who is not.

Even the wisest people lose sight of what is important from time to time—it’s part of being human. Jesus was fully human too—we are going to say that again in just a few moments in the creed. If Jesus can benefit from a reminder to be more open with others, there’s good news there for us all, as fallible and prone to pride as we can be. Through the woman’s humility, Jesus is reminded that God truly does mean that the table will be wide enough to hold everyone, and that all are not just worthy but are beloved—as beloved when they are in the wrong as when they are in the right. God’s table is open to all, to be accepted, valued, and cared for. And when people feels accepted and valued, they feel secure. And from that security, we can feel brave enough to treat each other with mercy and compassion. This is the purpose God displayed in sending Jesus to us, and in reminding Jesus and us of the wisdom that relationship is woven into the very fabric of our existence. Jesus is opened to that reminder by the woman, and that gift of understanding, of connection, of caring for each other in generosity, grace, and compassion.

And that is the beginning of wisdom.

Preached at the 10:30 am Eucharist, held online and in person, at St. Martin's Episcopal Church, Ellisville.

Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23
Psalm 125
James 2:1-10, [11-13], 14-17
Mark 7:24-37

Sunday, August 22, 2021

The Armor of Vulnerability: Sermon for the 13th Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 16B)

I used to love to watch war movies with my Dad, especially those John Wayne classics like The Sands of Iwo Jima and The Longest Day. We loved The Fighting Seabees, because my Dad WAS a Seabee in World War II. I also loved playing games based on battle: Battleship,Stratego, and Risk.

In all those movies and in all those games, there were a few life lessons scattered in there for anyone, whether destined for the military or not. Think twice about attacking if you are outnumbered. Always try to defend the high ground, not the low ground. An army travels on its stomach. Offense is more costly and risky than defense if you are defending your home turf. Even: Never get a tattoo while drunk.

And of course, I grew up in churches that used war metaphors in their hymns, hymns like “Onward Christian Soldiers,” and “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” (which, while it is a patriotic song written during the Civil War, was also in the hymnals of most churches we attended when I was little). Then there were other hymns that glorified the topic of blood: “Because He Lives,” “Are You Washed in the Blood?” “Nothing But the Blood” “What Can Wash Away My Sin?”-- all drawing on the image in the Book of Revelations about the faithful being washed in the blood of the Lamb of God, and made white as snow.

So many words in that image right there that can be deeply problematic if not handled carefully. When I was really little, and trying to understand that last song particularly, I also used to wonder how my friends who were people of color felt about being turned white by Jesus—until I was old enough to read the verse and see that it was talking about garments, not skin. But still, the privileging of the color “white” and its association with some people can be very much misused in prejudiced persons’ hands.

And so, the readings this week brought back some memories—memories of being taught a pugnacious faith, a faith in which Christians were deemed to be persecuted by society and under assault by Satan in a place where every business still was forced under law to be closed until noon on Sunday, the Christian day of worship, and in which my sixth grade homeroom teacher in a public school forced each one of us to take a turn leading the class in prayer every morning, and in which the study of the Old Testament was in the Tulsa Public Schools’ English curriculum not once but TWICE between grades 9-12. And the kids we had in school who were NOT Christian—in particular, the Jewish kids and the Buddhist kids who were refugees from Vietnam and Cambodia—were left to understand that America was a Christian nation, and if they wanted to fit in, they needed to get with the program. Which isn’t exactly how Jesus would have put it.

And these verses from Ephesians were often a chosen text in urging Christians to be ready to violently respond in defense of their faith in Jesus. This section is sometimes referred to as “The Armor of God.” The voice used her is a voice of command—the imperative. That is admirably suited for a passage so filled with martial language. Christians are ordered to take up our positions, to pray (repeated three times) and be alert.

Let’s catalogue the military terms that are scattered like buckshot through this brief passage: “armor” (twice), “belt,” “breastplate,” “shield,” “arrows,” “helmet,” “sword.” Then notice the verbs: “stand” (as in military formation) is used four times; “take” is used three times; “put on” is used three times. The New Interpreters’ Study Bible notes that the word translated as “take” in v. 13 is used in military context for preparations before battle. The order in which the Christian puts each item on is the order used when putting on actual armor and at the end one puts on one’s helmet and places his sword in the sheath.

But then let’s remember who the Christians at Ephesus were: a tiny minority group who chose to follow Jesus in a huge port city that made its living on trade and pagan worship, especially dominated by a Temple of the Goddess Artemis—that also served as one of the biggest banks in the Mediterranean-- that was so big it was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. That is a VERY different context from ours today, even with fewer people attending church. Even now, for some, claiming the title of Christian is a means to social acceptance and upward mobility, a path to belonging rather than to a life of faithful witness.

The pressure was on these early Christians known as the Ephesians from two directions. First, many of them had converted from Judaism, and Jesus was NOT considered to be the messiah by mainstream Judaism. Second, those who were Gentiles had converted from the civic pagan faith, and their abandonment was feared to possibly bring about the wrath of the gods. They were a tiny, ragtag group of people living in a culture that could turn hostile should some calamity descend and should their neighbors need a convenient scapegoat. They were vulnerable in the worst meaning of that word.

Thus, St. Paul has to urge them to keep the faith. But he does NOT do it by urging them to take up arms against their neighbors. Almost every single piece of the armor mentioned in his metaphorical list is defensive, not offensive. He is also clear that this armor is put on for the gospel of PEACE. The world was already a violent enough place. Jesus spent his public ministry urging people to put down their hatreds, their violent tendencies, and instead to love their enemies and pray for them. Even in this week’s gospel, when people are offended by his blunt words, he doesn’t force them to listen or force them to stay—he lets them depart in peace.

It is even more of a stark contrast to see that the thing Paul is urging those Ephesian Christians to defend in such military terms is “the gospel of peace.” Notice that some of the words used here were also used in our psalm: strength, and then the urging to prayer. Further, the belt Paul urges wearing is truth, the breastplate is righteousness, the shield is faith, the helmet is salvation, and the sword is the Spirit, which is equated with the word of God (not in the sense of Jesus or the scriptures, but in the sense of general revelation). In other words, the tools given to us in the fight against evil are gifts from God, and a sign of God’s loving-kindness toward us.

Nowadays, many of us are rightfully uneasy with concepts of religious warfare, tainted as this imagery is with the evils of the crusades, forced conversion as in Spain in the 15thcentury, jihad throughout the ages, and so on. We continuously see Christians at war against even other Christians. Yet at the same time, the world is in need of people willing to put their entire being behind living out the gospel of peace, grace, and mercy, who ARE willing to stand up for and alongside the cause of the poor, the oppressed, the marginalized.

We see Muslim attacking Muslim in Afghanistan right now, with the Taliban attempting to use brutal, military force to impose their fundamentalist, rigid understanding of Islam on their neighbors who have thus far not been persuaded by their words and deeds. Their willingness to kill fellow Muslims in the name of a religion whose name means “Surrender” shows that Christianity is not alone in its tendency to misplace the peaceful heart of faith with the fist of war.

It is important, therefore, to treat these texts respectfully and also carefully. As we have seen repeatedly over the last many months, sometimes one has to physically put one’s body on the line in the cause of justice and creating a lasting PEACE within society. Our efforts are not in the cause of force and oppression, but must be in the service of the “peace of God,” which surpasses human understanding. Jesus’s gospel is one of vulnerability in the BEST sense: openness, the willingness to lay down one’s privileges for the service of the weakest members of society. Just as Jesus himself did, again and again. It’s a vulnerability that projects strength, not fear,because it is grounded in love and service to others.

Does Paul say this armor is to be used to attack others? NO. He says the armor of God will make Jesus’s disciples who put it on bold—bold in proclaiming the living, loving faith of Jesus, in word and deed—ESPECIALLY against the forces of anger, violence, and destruction. It calls for us to be made WISE, not murderous. The armor of God is the armor of love in the face of hatred.

In the end, we have to remember that armor is just an empty shell. Armor’s importance lies in protecting the one wearing it. God’s armor is not meant to block out the cries those around us, but to enable us to stand alongside them in solidarity. The armor of God is what we put on every day that we choose to not just be fans of Jesus but to be followers of Jesus. This armor acknowledges our vulnerability and our freedom to choose a way of life that is NOT always easy, that does come with some cost and sacrifice.

We hear that kind of vulnerability in Jesus’s question to his closest disciples as some of the crowd drifts off in our gospel, shocked by his unflinching talk about blood and flesh. “Do you also want to go away?” he asked sadly, yet with understanding and compassion. Jesus’s love is a freeing love; Jesus’s path is a path NO ONE can be forced to walk. At the heart of this love is the great mystery: that Jesus doesn’t just come to save us from hell, but to show us the way of life as we are living it. It is a life lived for each other no matter how distant or different we are from each other.

We are called to fight for love over conquest, and to fight using our hearts and our honesty, not our fists. May we all choose the armor of truth, the armor of righteousness, the armor of love and light—the armor of vulnerability.

Preached at the 10:30 in-person and online service at St. Martin's Episcopal Church, Ellisville, MO.


Prayer, day 3126: Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 16B)

With joy, we come before your altars, O God
and lift our voices in song and praise
for your saving love!
Bread of Life, you offer yourself to us
for the life of the world:
strengthen us in wisdom
to abide in you, and you in us, Blessed Jesus.
There is no place we find ourselves
that you are not our companion and shepherd, Lord:
for God so loved the world
and all of us within it
that we are given your Son in reconciliation and love.
By your grace, redeem us, O Savior,
and unify us to serve the cause of love always.
Merciful God, by the power of the Holy Spirit,
purify us and consecrate us, we humbly pray,
and place the hand of blessing
over all whose hope is in You.


Sunday, July 25, 2021

Beyond the Stormy Seas: Sermon for the Ninth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 12B)

“I go down to the edge of the sea.
How everything shines in the morning light!”

-- Mary Oliver, from “Breakage”

Yesterday, St. Martin’s celebrated a momentous day: the ordination of the Rev. Shug Goodlow to the priesthood in the Episcopal beanch of Christ’s one. Holy, catholic, and apostolic church. Apostolic, because at her consecration, Shug had hands placed on her by her kindred priests and by her bishop, a tradition we proclaim that stretches back in an unbroken line to the apostles. For me, the tears started at Veni, Spritu Sanctus, that ancient prayer. There were a multitude of witnesses and a multitude of hnads pressing down on Shug across places and centuries. It was obvious to me that the Spirit of God and God’s abundant grace were in this place.

Today in our gospel, we hear another reminder of God’s abundance. Last Sunday we omitted Mark’s recounting of the feeding of the multitude from the gospel reading in the lectionary, and many of us wondered why. This week we pick up that story, yet we are given the version in the gospel of John, not Mark, and the author of John lays out the story in a very specific way. The first part is familiar: Jesus feeds a multitude even though there is only a little food at hand; yet when everyone has been satisfied, there are heaping amounts of food left over.

The Gospel of John then makes an interesting claim: in response to the feeding, the crowd comes to believe that Jesus is “the prophet who has come into the world,” and they leap from prophet to emperor. Jesus is then said to realize that they are about to try to force him to become king, and withdraws away to the mountain by himself. As evening approaches, the disciples eventually get into the boat and set off across the sea toward Capernaum, toward home, after they have waited in vain for Jesus to join them. As the apostles propel themselves across the water, the sea gets increasingly rough, even as home beckons once they get beyond the storm. Finally, in the darkest part of the night, they see Jesus approaching them—by walking on water.

John’s account doesn’t include Matthew’s story of Peter impulsively hurling himself over the side to join Jesus’s perambulations. In Mark and John, the disciples resolutely stay glued in the boat as Jesus approaches them, walking on the waves as you or I would walk on a sidewalk, and yet they know they are three or four miles from shore. Matthew and Mark measure the distance travelled by the disciples’ boat by time: they claim that this miracle happens during the “fourth watch of the night,” which would be a time right before dawn, a time when the sages say it is darkest—you know: “It’s always darkest before the dawn.” For three watches, the disciples had been struggling against the oars, against the wind and the sea, against their own repeated inability to understand and accept who exactly Jesus is.

They’re still trying to wrap their minds around this miraculous feeding of a crowd and now Jesus is treating water as if it is solid ground, even as it crashes against the boat. John’s gospel states that the Passover was near at this time, and now Jesus is passing over the water toward them. Passover is the time when it is remembered that the angel of death had swooped over Egypt, carrying off the firstborn of every household that had not splashed its doorposts with blood—a night that is also follows a meal. Now here’s Jesus passing over and through storms and crashing waves like an angel himself. It’s no wonder those who were sitting in a boat amongst turbulent waves became afraid—of the storm yes, but also of this Jesus who comes to them in his own way, untroubled by the storm that encloses them. The crowd has still betrayed their misunderstanding of Jesus, and probably now the disciples too fail to understand. They are so busy goggling at how Jesus approaches them that they don’t notice that they are very near to the shore.

The feeding of the multitude and Jesus’s path across the stormy seas are told as one story for a reason. On one side of the sea the multitude is fed and on the other side of the sea Jesus is revealed as one who transcends limits. In between is the sea filled with our confusion, our doubt, our insistence that we not be shaken too much in our understanding. We are hungry for God, yet cast adrift by our own inability to accept who Jesus really is. We want Jesus to feed us but not transform us. We insist that Jesus to come to us in ways we can understand.

Jesus comes to us and expects us to wrap our minds around the fact that he feeds those who follow him, worthy or unworthy, lovable and unlovable—all are invited to the table, and all are filled to overflowing like that cup that runneth over in Psalm 23. In fact, there are small facets of the 23rd Psalm that glisten like precious gems in the midst of this story today, there for the finding: the very abundant grass in that place where Jesus bids the crowds sit down on is a detail only in John’s version of this feeding of the multitudes. Jesus feeds this multitude in a pasture—and this reminds us of the verse in the 23rd Psalm: “He makes me to lie down in green pastures.” Mark’s version even states that Jesus has compassion on the hungry crowd because they were “like sheep without a shepherd.” In John’s telling, Jesus is their shepherd, and he makes them lie down in green pastures so that he can spread a table before them.

This radical feast may very well overwhelm us, in a world in which we have programmed ourselves to respond to artificial scarcity created by advertisers and politicians determined to weaken us by driving us apart and teaching us to see each other as competition rather than kindred. This may scare us, in a world where we try to justify the deaths of people in jail cells or slums or war zones, who shouldn’t have been there in the first place.

This may terrify us, in a world where we continue to misuse creation and each other in countless ways to erode the bonds among us, and then angrily denounce how lost and alone we feel in the world, and how cut off we are from this good earth which bears us in its arms even as we declare ourselves aloof from its embrace. This may cause us to believe there is not food enough. This may cause us to push away from the shore, to resolve to stay adrift in the storm we know, no matter how awful it is for us. To embrace the nihilism of defeat and division from the Princes of Lies among us, rather than radically trust and accept the Jesus whose love promises to change us once we embrace who he really is—our living bread, our good shepherd. In this pandemic, there are far too many around us who have decided to embrace destruction, to embrace being in the midst of the stormy sea, divided and suspicious of each other. Yet aren’t we all, sitting here, hungry for that kind of grace and love that Jesus offers our starving souls?

It starts with receiving Jesus as our savior and the glorious transformation he offers us, rather than pushing our boats out into the stormy sea through pride and fear. It starts with also being willing to tend to each other in tenderness rather than fighting each other as enemies and strangers. Just like those apostles, we tell Jesus and ourselves We have no food to feed all these people. And yet Jesus insists we all sit together and eat.

Jesus continues to respond to us: together, we are called to give them something to eat—together, not as “us” and “them.”

We are called to understand that Jesus is not sent to us to be a bureaucrat, enforcer, or magistrate-- but to be the one to lead us into a new understanding of how we ourselves are called to be. Even with the little we think we bring with us, abundance and well-being and peace and satisfaction—all those things which we can’t seem to generate for ourselves due to our own fears—come from allowing ourselves to be blessed and fed by Jesus and his radical gospel of love. But we have to stop trying to remake Jesus according to our ideas of justice, which divides people into winners and losers, and let him come to us without trying to force him into our boat, to travel as we do. Once we see Jesus as he is, we realize that the shore is right before us, and the waves no longer threaten.

Lord, it has been a hard path through the darkness and the stormy seas these last many days. We continue to struggle against the storms within our hearts that drive us from You and leave us famished. May we always remember that, even when it is darkest, You are beside us, loving us. May we always remember that in You, there is more than enough- enough bread, enough mercy, enough grace—and let us allow ourselves to be filled, and to believe in our power and our duty even to fill each other—an obligation you place upon us as our shepherd.

Lord Jesus, beloved Savior, you are our bread and our cup, our peace and our path leading us home, beyond the edge of the sea to the shore of our home, our harbor, our God who sustains us in all things.

Preached at the 10:30 am online and unperson service at St. Martin's Episcopal Church, Ellisville, MO, on July 25, 2021


Sunday, July 18, 2021

Body and Soul: Sermon for Proper 10B

I don’t know about you, but there’s a lot going on in our family’s lives right now. I spent my day off in Tulsa, taking my Mom to the doctor and running a bunch of errands for her. I visited with and prayed with my sister, who was supposed to have surgery but had suddenly had it denied by her insurance company, which meant it had to be paid for out of pocket, which was incredibly stressful and even traumatic on top of the trauma of further surgery when she has been suffering for over four months.

I returned and did parish work while also rushing around doing things for my family in the evenings. I played phone tag with several people fruitlessly and frustratingly. We closed on a new house, and learned we needed new phones to be able to stay in contact with the outside world, and had to make the arrangement for all of the resulting changes. Bill was so excited we had to spend the night there even without our furniture and no internet. And more church work, and more family tasks. At the speed of sound.

And the truth is, it wore me out. And I thought about how we are prone in America to worship overwork, and overfunctioning, and how we take being tired and overscheduled to somehow be a sign to us of how important we are. And I give thanks that right when I needed it most, we get a gospel that reminds us of how Jesus calls us to remember the unity between body and soul, and the importance of honoring and caring for ourselves and others in our bodily needs.

To set the scene for the gospel: A couple of weeks ago in the lectionary, Jesus had sent the apostles out to evangelize throughout the Judean countryside. At the start of our gospel reading today, they return, exhilarated—but also exhausted. They have been more successful than they had ever dreamed they could be. After all, it was one thing for Jesus to heal the sick and explain the kingdom of God. Jesus is, after all, the Son of God. Miracles and healing are his specialty, we’ve been led to believe. But for merely human apostles to do the same thing? Inconceivable at first—but exactly what each person who follows Jesus is called to do.

Throughout this gospel today, we see Jesus lovingly, tenderly, perceptively taking human physical needs and limitations seriously. As always, he offers healing to all who ask—and even to the disciples, who forget to ask. Are you tired? Jesus asks. Rest. Especially, rest in prayer, in the presence of God. Honor your human body and its needs as well as your obligations as my followers. Being human is not less-than. Being human is holy, when all we do is lived in the pursuit and presence of God.

Far too much of Christianity today emphasizes the miraculous, divine side of Jesus and his status as the Christ. We then lose sight of the human being Jesus son of Mary also was— the son, the brother, the friend, the apprentice carpenter, the nascent rabbi. And that is not a good thing for a variety of reasons, but one of the most insidious of which is it leads to a splitting of our lives between the sacred and the worldly, the soul and the body, which can be very harmful to our overall well-being.

Worse, there are those who convince themselves that spiritual stuff is for Sundays, while also walling off the ethical obligations of being Christian the other days of the week. It has become common in our religious discourse to preference the spiritual over the material, and in particular the body —with often disastrous consequences.

Favoring the spiritual over the bodily has led to very real harm in Christian history. It has led to many pious people coldly discounting the pains, sufferings, and sorrows of this world and its inhabitants with a shrug of helplessness at best or unconcerned fatalism at worst. At its widest perspective, this disdain for bodily existence leads to talk about this world--and its inhabitants-- as fallen, evil, unredeemable, accursed, worthy only of being exploited and consumed rather than something holy that God from the moment of creation pronounced “good” and even “very good.” There are even groups of Christians who gleefully welcome natural disasters and diseases as signs of the Apocalypse, which they believe will lead to them being raptured off of this fallen world while millions suffer torment. It’s appallingly hateful and selfish—and also completely opposed to how Jesus lives his own life with others.

This denigration of the material world is also directed at our wondrous human bodies, which can be treated with contempt due to their mortality and fragility—and also, to be clear, due to some Biblical stories and verses that have been misinterpreted over the millennia. For women—and young girls, even—our bodies are slandered and denigrated as allegedly being sources of temptation and evil, even today, unless they are rigidly regulated, controlled, shamed while being simultaneously sexualized. Women’s bodies are even viewed as property, decoration, or trophies, or reduced to limited roles inside the home such as cleaning, cooking, or providing offspring—with alienation for those women who do not fit into this mold for one reason or another. And always, always, ruthlessly criticized and kept in their place at best or unprotected and undefended from violence at worst.

Men’s bodies, too, must be physically strong, vigorous, coordinated, masterful, dominant—or their very worth as men can be questioned. Weakness, emotion, or vulnerability must be denied at all costs. And it causes very real physical and spiritual harm for all of us.

Even more subtly, in our everyday lives, this false divide between body and soul can make it easy for us to excuse ethical decisions we make in our workaday lives that we know in our hearts violate Jesus’s gospel of good news for everyone.

We can find ourselves nodding our heads on Sunday to commandments not to lie or cheat or exploit others, but then relegate such promises to the spiritual world when confronted with the chance to grab power or make a buck during the rest of the week.

The contempt we can have for our own bodies and their needs is NOTHING compared to the contempt we can have for other people’s bodies and their needs if we believe it might cost us something in terms of advantage or privilege or freedom. Divorcing body from soul also costs us our integrity, compassion, and sense of duty to our fellow human beings by “othering” them and declaring “the weak”—a terrible word itself filled with blame and shame-- as deserving of their poverty and suffering for our own benefit.

We cannot draw a bright line between our bodily lives—political, economic, secular—and our spiritual lives. We have one life given to us by the gift and grace of God. That one life is a seamless whole, and we have to honor both our bodily needs and our spiritual growth as a unified whole. And as much as we honor our own bodily needs, as disciples of Jesus we are called to care for the bodily needs of others, particularly the vulnerable, and never insist on our own way if it could cause another person to stumble, or if it could obscure or refute the goodness of God in the world. We have to remember that each individual body does not exist by itself, but exists within a number of communities, including the Body of Christ.

Our gospel reading this week makes it clear that not only was Jesus human, he understood the cared for the very human needs of his disciples as they went about the shared work of bringing the kingdom of God to light on earth. The very human Jesus and the very human disciples spent large parts of their lives ministering to others because that is what the life of a follower of Jesus MUST be all about. Our daily lives flow out of our spiritual lives. What does our daily life say about our spiritual values? This is important, necessary and ongoing self-reflection.

Our gospel reminds us that body and the soul are the insuperable two sides of the same coin that makes up human existence, for Jesus as well as all of us. Jesus as the Incarnate One hallows and exemplifies human bodily existence, showing us all what wonder and beauty and nobility of which we are all capable as God’s children.

In unifying the body and the soul, the human and the divine, and awakening all of us to our possession of both natures from our very creation and first breath, Jesus has awakened us and those disciples that to the reality that we don’t get a free pass to leave the miracles to Jesus as the divine Son of God while we excuse our vices as being merely human.

Jesus spent so much time healing bodily ailments to remind us of how important bodies are. Jesus didn’t come just to show us how to go to heaven when we die and shed these bodies. Jesus comes to show us how to live, and how our lives testify to who we believe God is. Our bodies and their needs are reminders of God’s love for us, and desire for us to be happy. How we use our bodies and live our lives IS both worship and testimony. As children of God, our entire lives—not just our Sunday lives, or our worship lives-- tell the world who God is.

How would it change our lives if we actively acknowledged the truth that everything we do, no matter how mundane or trivial or practical—how we work, how we play, how we treat ourselves, how we treat others, how we spend our time and our money-- is done in the presence of God? To realize that body and soul together are what makes each of us who we are both as individuals but also has very real implications with how we use our time and our skills and our bodies in the world as a visible testimony to who we say God is and who we are as God created each of us?

When we view our lives as completely lived before the presence of God, both our work and our play will reflect God’s kingdom values of justice, compassion, healing, wellness, interconnectedness. There will be no more “them” and us.” There will be no more division between “work” and “worship.” There will be no more striving without rest.

We are called to stand before God with all that we are and all that we have—body and soul. What we pray and what we do is our true testimony in the eyes of the world.

There must be no more illusion that all that we are and all that we do, that all that we give and all that we receive are all not of one seamless whole before our Lord, our Savior, our Creator, who loves us beyond imagining and calls us to embrace the life of generosity and community that both sustains us and calls us forward as beloveds of God. Body and soul, at work or at rest, always in the presence of God, our Companion, Shepherd, and Creator.

Preached at the 10:30 online service at St. Martin's Episcopal Church, Ellisville, on July 18, 2021.


Thursday, July 15, 2021

Prayer 3087

Most Merciful God,
We put our trust in You
and ask the light of your countenance
upon us and all those for whom we pray.
Grant your wisdom and guidance
to the hands and minds of surgeons, doctors, and nurses,
for all who practice the healing arts,
that they may restore their patients to wholeness and health,
and be protected from all danger and heartbreak.
Place the balm of your Spirit
upon all who are ill, anxious, or awaiting news,
that your Name may be glorified.
Strengthen us in faith, that we may go out
to live and serve you in faith and hope,
commending these loved ones to your care.

Filling the Gaps: Speaking to the Soul, July 15, 2021

A few years ago, my daughter Katie and I traveled to the Catalan region of Spain with my dear friends Joe and Joanie, her godparents, as a gift from them for her graduation We spent most of our time in Barcelona, but we also took a day trip to Girona and Figueres.

Girona, in particular, was fascinating. Founded in 79 AD, it had been defended (and conquered) repeatedly due to its strategic location along major thoroughfares in the Roman, Moorish, and Holy Roman Empires and beyond. Walls thus became very important in keeping the town safe, and there were a series of walls built throughout the centuries as the town needed to expand its footprint as it grew. Walking along its cobbled streets, which were themselves works of art, you could see walls that were 1500 years old. They were a beloved reminder to the people of this town of their resilience.

In some places, gaps were visible between the stones. In some of the bigger ones, artists created small figurines like the one above-- carved like an atlas (a support column carved in the shape of a man common in Greco-Roman architecture) in a charming show of whimsy. This atlas appeared as though he was trying to resume his position holding up the wall above him. And yet he was only about 6 inches high, in the midst of a wall that soared twenty feet high or more. But what we noticed was how he was perfectly positioned for the gap he was in, symbolizing resilience and initiative.

By the 12th century, Girona had attracted a thriving Jewish population, who lived in a segregated part of the town, as was common. Our guide took us to a former residence there, and as she spoke, we noticed another niche in the doorway just higher than our guide's head. This was the slot carved into the stone where the mezuzah had been. A mezuzah is a container holding a tiny piece of parchment that contains the prayer known as Shema Yisrael from the Book of Deuteronomy. Jewish people touch the mezuzah and the Torah portion within when entering the doorway as a way of remembering their adherence to the commandment to worship God as One. The guide explained the mezuzahs throughout the quarter had been ruthlessly removed when the Jews were forced to convert or be exiled in 1492. Thus, this niche was noteworthy by its emptiness, reminding us of people who HAD lived here, but who were ultimately unwelcome. And although recently, a few Jews have returned to the town, their presence will forever be changed within that community, but they look forward to the future.

When we entered the Old Town square, we had much to think about, and as we came through the dividing wall, I happened to look up and saw a surprise. A flowing vine had established itself between the minutest of crevices in the doorway casing, and protruded out about a foot, flaunting one lone flower at its end that swayed and danced in the breeze. As tight as the stone work was, that vine and the life it represented was determined to find a way, and find a way it did.

Thus, we had seen three kinds of gaps: one that was the better for being joyfully and playfully filled; one that had once been filled but now testified to and lamented an absence; and one that made visible a gap and an opportunity for growth that would otherwise have gone unnoticed.

Since this pandemic began, and as it continues, sometimes all we can see is the gaps. Other times, we walk right past them without noticing. I want to suggest to you that, especially during these last 18 months, we have been presented with all three of these kinds of gaps in our parishes, and, frankly, in every area of our lives, if we think about it.

Where have you filled some gaps in your life with something playful or joyful, something meant to bring a smile to the faces of those who come after you? (And if you haven't, it's never too late to start or too small a thing to make a difference.)

Where have you mourned a new gap in your life? Perhaps it was the loss of being able to be with friends and family; perhaps it is even the loss of a loved one who has died. Perhaps it was a job. Perhaps it is suddenly being able to worship only online, and the continued reminder of how much you miss being in person with friends and family. How have you sought to acknowledge that gap, honor it, and open yourself to the possibility of hope and comfort?

Where have you found new opportunities in your life for growth and change, new opportunities to lend a hand and help others? Where have you sought new life, new habits, new flourishing in your spiritual practices? There are unseen opportunities all around us.

Even in the midst of uncertainty, and change, and absence, there are all opportunities for reflection, for growth, for action as well. We have the magnificent opportunity to grow together as a community in Christ, stronger than before-- if we are all eager to be mindful of the gaps and seek to fill them. There are new needs that this pandemic has exposed, and new ways of being the Church and disciples in the world for which the world is crying out. And it all starts with each and every one of us seeing --and seizing-- the new niches we can fill for the glory of God, for the love of neighbor, and for the testimony to the love of Christ and his gospel of love in a hurting world.

Faithful disciples are called to proclaim a gospel of hope and of faithfulness, and that is more needed now than ever. How can you seek out new ways to fill the gaps, and make your parish, and her mission beyond her walls, stronger than ever?

This was published at Episcopal Cafe's Speaking to the Soul on July 15, 2021.

Sunday, July 11, 2021

Dancing in the Streets: Sermon for Proper 10B (Seventh Sunday after Pentecost)

It is interesting to note that we rarely see readings that discuss dancing in scripture, and yet, this week, we get two readings that mentioned dance as a central figure in a story. And there's a great deal of contrast between the two dances depicted in our readings this week.

David’s dance is before God. It is not meant to please anyone but God, and is a sign of pure joy and triumph --and, dare we say it, worship? Most of us staid Episcopalians do not consider dance to be a normal part of our worship lives --and for many of us, dance is something that we do not consider to be a normal part of any of our lives. And there's a very simple reason for that. Dancing makes us self-conscious, mostly because dancing puts our bodies, and our sense of rhythm, on display.

It wasn’t always like that for most of us. As children, we delighted in the things we could do through movement: crawling, walking, and running led to twirling, bouncing, and leaping. This was allowed when you were at home, but not allowed when you were in public—and it is that prohibition, I think that led many of us to lose our joy in rhythmical movement.

For some of us this talk about dancing can bring to mind either humiliating, awkward mixers in our school days or parqueted floors at weddings —or worse, elementary school gym class, where we were forced to learn square dancing or the Virginia reel while our gym teacher snuck off for a smoke outside, we suspected. Then there are those songs that have formulaic dances or songs attached to them. But too many of us don’t join in. We worry that we are out of rhythm or out of step. We worry that we look silly. We worry that we don't know the latest moves.

And this extends into worship. Most Episcopal parishes do not incorporate dance into liturgy. We Episcopalians are generally very stodgy about body movement during worship. Sure, there’s standing, sitting, kneeling, genuflecting—what the late great Episcopalian Robin Williams famously called “pew aerobics.” But we don’t tend to make a lot of gestures—heck some of us can’t bring ourselves to genuflect, and that’s okay.

But it can be a hard habit to shake, this regulating every movement in worship. One of the things we had to be taught as we prepared for our ordination was the manual motions priests are called to make during the Eucharist. The first several times we practiced, I felt incredibly self-conscious. Was I flinging my hands out too wide? Was I moving too fast or too slowly? 

Bless you, my people.

How exactly do you hold your fingers when blessing the people? How do you avoid looking like Carol Burnett channeling the Queen of England waving from her carriage?

But when I first became an Episcopalian, I loved the predictability of it all, having grown up in some churches where people would be “seized by the spirit” and randomly speak in tongues. In the first parish in which I was a member, there was a young boy we’ll call Joey. Joey was not neuro-typical and largely non-verbal, but he watched everything. And when it came time for communion, he was often the first to run to the altar rail, hands outstretched. After receiving the host, Joey would pop it into his mouth with a shout, and then spin and twirl his way back to his family’s pew. Of course, there were people who disapproved. But luckily, we had a priest who knew that Joey was demonstrating for all of us the joy that communion is possible to elicit. He was being authentically himself—but himself joyfully grateful to a God he knew but couldn’t describe.

David, it is told, wrote many of the psalms, which meant he spent a lifetime trying to describe God and trying to define his relationship with God. Yet in our first reading today, David puts aside his pen, and instead puts on the garments of a priest, and dances before the ark of the covenant with all of the joy and wonder he felt, unashamedly, joyfully. He is dancing to express the joy of God’s throne being back among God’s people at long last, a moment of dramatic importance.

Contrast David’s dance with that of Herod’s stepdaughter, who is actually named Salome. David’s dance is understood as more acceptable because it is not for bedazzling a creepy despot, but for expressing his joyful worship—and no one loses their lives because of it, either. We can admire his bravery at putting aside his air of dignity to give full expression to what God means in his life, as imperfect as we all know he is. But how many of us are glad we are not being asked to dance with all our might in front of a gathered multitude?

What does this story mean for us? How often do we feel self-conscious about parts of our calling as Christian witnesses and disciples?

First, perhaps we should consider the false division between body and spirit that has taken root in much of our thinking about human life today. Bodies and souls are both dependent upon each other in this life. Bodies are not some shameful disposable container for our immortal souls but are instead a reminder that we share our embodied life with Christ himself. Just as bodies and souls depend upon each other, so too our faith and our life are intertwined, and depend upon each other. Listen carefully to what we pray in worship. It tells us important things about how to live—how to get out there and dance the dance of God for the world to see.

Then there’s the spiritual dance of discipleship, and how we can embody that in our lives. How many of us hesitate when the Spirit calls us into the dance of love and true worship that might make us forget ourselves and possibly open ourselves up to scorn and mockery in the eyes of this cynical divided world? Oh, it probably wouldn’t take actual dancing to do a number on us.

It wouldn’t take actual dancing in the streets-- or, in a way, does it? What if it required us to be better evangelists? Oooh, just as scary. But as we learned with the revival of line dancing after the disco and Urban Cowboy eras, anything is less embarrassing if done in groups rather than individually. And that’s key: we do this together, supporting each other. Inviting each other into the dance of faith, the dance of the Trinity of God that makes us all one.

Let us dance in the freedom of religion as a guide for our own behavior rather than a bludgeon we could use on OTHER people’s behavior, especially if our religious beliefs cost us nothing and cost them their identity or dignity.

Let us dance in a new understanding of how our public opinions and actions —both as individuals and as a group-- toward the poor, the marginalized, and the outcast fare next to Christ’s gospel actions toward the poor, the marginalized and the outcast.

Let us dance together in using our power to alleviate the potential suffering of those around us instead of idolizing our own rights at the expense of others.

Let us dance in a new understanding of how powerful our words are to build up those around us in unity and grace, rather than tear others down.

Let us dance into speaking honestly about what God’s love has meant for us in our lives when someone asks us if we go to church.

Could it be that, for all the fear of looking foolish, there would also be indescribable joy that we might open ourselves up to receive?

Each of these things would put us as much on display as actually joining David in dancing in the streets before the Ark. Yet God is inviting Christians, especially now in this time of hatred, division, and contempt, to literally embody Christ’s loving values against the forces of inhumanity, dishonesty, and exploitation.

That may sound scary. But God is also calling us to embrace joy, and generosity, and gratitude, and be blessed as these gifts take root in our lives, softening the hard soil that can seize up our hearts so that we could be truly happy and fruitful.

Come, join in the dance, and see where it leads.


Preached at the 10:30 online Eucharist at St. Martin's Episcopal Church, Ellisville, MO on July 11, 2021.

Saturday, July 10, 2021

Homily for the Funeral of Dee Robinson

John 5:24-27

We are gathered today to remember and celebrate the ongoing life and love of Dorothy “Dee” Robinson, a woman of incredible strength, grit, joy, humor, and faith.

There are some people whose personalities are just too much to be contained by their bodies. Dee Robinson was apparently one of those people.

When I first was talking to the family about Dee, I made the mistake of referring to her as “Dorothy.” Apparently, no one knew her as Dorothy. She was Dee. Dee as in “determined.” Although she lived 50 years of her life under a diagnosis of Multiple Sclerosis, one cannot say that she was a “victim” of MS, or even that she “battled” MS. No, Dee also stands for “dominate,” because she dominated MS and any wayward body part such as a foot that would dare not bend itself to her will. Dee “stands” for determined, because she faced the world on her own two feet even if one of those feet got ridiculous ideas about disobeying this lady’s absolutely resolute will.

Dee stood for D as in “dynamic.” Dee lived her life with certain distinct preferences: vegetables, no; extra vermouth in her Manhattan, yes. When it came to vegetables, and her repugnance for them, Dee also stands for the D in “dramatic” in the best and most charming sense.

And frankly, Dee stands for “d” as in “dynamo.” She loved and raised five kids, including her beloved Wendy, who is interred next to Dee and Mel in our columbarium. Her kids Deborah, Cindy, Ron, and Chuck in turn raised their seven kids, who in turn are raising, at last count, 8 great-grandkids and this web of love, loudness and laughter all traces itself back in all its glory to Dee. This is the ultimate testimony to a life well lived on Dee’s own terms.

One of the greatest challenges in preparing for services such as funerals is our misconception about them—and sometimes, the Church itself does not help. Some of the funeral readings provided for as suggestions in the Episcopal Church and elsewhere in Christendom can get downright depressing. Readings such as those would not have shone any light on the reality of Dee’s long and determined life. Yet Dee was also a woman of deep faith. And the readings we hear today reflect that.

The passage of Isaiah speaks of good news being proclaimed to those who most desperately need it—and that IS perfect for a funeral service. In particular it contains words of comfort for those who mourn. These are the same words Jesus read from the scroll in his hometown synagogue, after his baptism and temptation in the wilderness. He arrived back into town after those 40 days of testing, shook the sand and dirt out of his hair, got himself presentable – and if he followed Dee’s example this would include some anointing with the first century equivalent of Chanel No. 5. I know I did that today, from a bottle my own mother gave me, in memory of her.

Jesus sat himself down among a bunch of people who were undoubtedly ready to underestimate him—and proclaimed himself as the Messiah—the one to free captives and prisoners, the one to declare a Jubilee at a time when most people were bowed down under Roman occupation, and to encourage those who mourn to put on their party clothes and get ready to dance from joy at the fact that liberation from death and disease and pain and anxiety was there in the midst of them. I think Dee admired chutzpah like that. I am sure some people made the mistake of unserderestimating her too-- to their immense regret.

Jesus’s life and values of care and protection for those who are his own like Dee are also woven deeply into the fabric of our beloved 23rd Psalm. This is a psalm that is so beloved for a reason: its very movement from speaking about God to speaking TO God in just six verses reminds us of the general path of movement in our lives of faith. Did you hear that? If not, try listening again, this time in Robert Alter’s beautiful poetic version rendered just a couple of years ago:

The Lord is my shepherd,
I shall not want.
In grass meadows He makes me lie down,
by quiet waters guides me.
My life He brings back.
He leads me on pathways of justice
for His name’s sake.
Though I walk in the vale of death’s shadow,
I fear no harm,
For You are with me.
Your rod and Your staff—
It is they that console me.
You set out a table before me
in the face of my foes.
You moisten my head with oil,
my cup overflows.
Let but goodness and kindness pursue me
all the days of my life.
And I shall dwell in the house of the LORD
for many long days.(2)

This psalm reflects the struggle we all face in our lives of faith and shows us the way forward. When we speak of God as distant, it is not God who has wandered away. Many of us have experienced times when we have felt that God is far from us. Or we may feel that way due to the scars and wounds the world has inflicted upon us. We may feel unloved and unlovable, and treat ourselves as disposable- or allow others to treat us that way. It’s the same way sometimes in our relationships in our families.

It’s important to remember though, that it is not God who has wandered off. So, remind yourself that God is your shepherd, and the blessings and love and grace God shows upon us—especially when we might not deserve it. Grant each other that same forbearance as you grieve together. Return to God, and then repeat to God: “I know You are with me. Your rod and staff comfort and protect me, and remind me that you are my portion and my cup, that overflows with love and mercy.” Dee knew this. Dee knew God’s presence alongside her, especially in times of trial that demanded every ounce of her formidable will.

Our final two readings work together so beautifully because they also bring this point home: we are God’s, and nothing we can do will change that. God’s love is that all-encompassing, God’s love is that strong. Stronger that any obstacle. Stronger than death itself. She is not gone, but instead has gained the victory over anything that dared get in her way in life. That is the testimony of Dee’s life for all of us. Her strength and her love lived boldly endure, in each and every one of you. And that strength welled up from her faith, her certainty, in Jesus as our Savior, our Redeemer, our protector, our guide, our shepherd.

In the months since Dee passed away, the reality of her absence has certainly been a terrible ache for this family, her friends, and all who loved her and her indomitable spirit. But I am hoping also that at the same time, signs of her ongoing love and care and how it continues to animate her extended family have also become apparent. The strength and force and faith with which she lived her life cannot be quenched even by death. For all of you who knew and loved Dee, I hope you can look within yourselves and see the way that she inspired and inspires you, challenged you and challenges you still, and encouraged and encourages you to seize life—and faith-- with both hands, and get the most out of it.

1) Image from The Daily Mirror, UK.
2) Robert Alter, from his translation of the TaNaKh, 2017.

--Preached at the Service of Burial for Dee Robinson, July 10, 2021 at 11 am online and in person at St. Martin's Episcopal Church, Ellisville, MO.