Sermon for the First Sunday in Lent offered at St. Mark's, Port Royal (February 26, 2023) and at Porter-Gaud School (March 2, 2023)
One of my favorite memories from our son George’s toddler years was an afternoon when things got very quiet in our house. Now, when things are too quiet and there’s a toddler living with you, that’s not good. So, I went hunting. “George, where are you?” I called. No answer. I ascended the stairs and opened the door into our library. There, sitting on the floor cross legged, buck naked, was George. Scattered around him were tiny silver wrappers. Hershey’s kisses wrappers. A whole bag’s worth. George looked at me, his face and hands covered in chocolate. He said nothing. He looked at me, eyes wide open. He waited to see what would happen next.
Welcome to Lent. Welcome to the wilderness. The place where God sees our moments of abandon, our moments of ache, our moments of questioning. The place where we wait to see what will happen next.
In our gospel lesson today, we find Jesus in the wilderness. There, away from all the usual props of life, Jesus is tested. He stares down Satan, who tempts him with all manner of shortcuts and diversions from his life purpose. Turn these stones into bread, hurl yourself from this cliff, kneel down and worship evil.
Just before the wilderness, Jesus was baptized by John in the Jordan River. And God said, as Jesus rose out of the water, “Behold, my son, my beloved one. With him I am well pleased.” Then, right after this intimate moment between the Father and the Son, Jesus is hurled headlong into the wilderness.
One moment, Jesus is shining and full of promise at his baptism and the very next moment, Jesus is tested, challenged, in the wilderness with temptation lurking.
There is a beautiful whole between these two stories. In the first, story, baptism tells us where we begin this journey. It is the moment when we are marked by the Holy Spirit, sealed as Christ’s own forever. A moment when the people we love are so proud of us Then, the wilderness is where we test the strength of that love. It’s where we wonder if they really do still love us, now that we have failed them; now that we have done this thing, or not done that thing they expected of us. Wilderness is where the love becomes real.
Does that mean God designs Satan’s challenges as a proving ground for love? I don’t believe that’s how it works. I do believe there is freedom in this world, and that includes freedom for the evil forces to do their worst. God allows that freedom.
It is normal to doubt God in moments when we feel the force of that evil. It is human to doubt. God engages doubt. God will wrestle with us, as he did with Jacob. God will meet us in the nighttime when we question, as he did Nicodemus, God will greet us in our deepest sorrow, as he did Mary Magdalene. God is strong enough to handle our doubts.
When we see events like the war in the Ukraine, the shootings in our own streets and in our schools, the hatred that takes a myriad of forms around our globe, the illnesses that ravage people we love, the cost of mistakes people make, the arguments in our own families—it all can make us wonder if there is any reason for hope.
In the season of Lent, we intentionally reflect on these untamed parts of human life—the places where we feel scared, abandoned, threatened, unsafe.
Sometimes we try to tame Lent. We worry only over what we will give up or add to our lives. Chocolate being at the top of many lists. And some people add disciplines—they pray more, or study the bible daily, or exercise regularly, or eat brussel sprouts—unless you’re like me and already love them—then, it doesn’t count. Or some people commit to do something helpful for someone in need each week.
All of these can be good things to do in this season. But, not just as exercises in self restraint or willpower. Our Lenten disciplines do serve a purpose, but they are not just another form of New Year’s resolutions.
Giving up things or adding mindful disciplines in our lives serves a deeper purpose. They help us return to what really matters. Like when you stop everything to go for a long walk with a friend, or to go sit by the sea with your family.
Sometimes we go to the wilderness by choice, through our disciplines. Other times, like Jesus, we are hurled there against our will. Like, when tragedy strikes. Like, when sin or grief overcome us. No matter how we get there, in the wilderness, we find what really matters.
For, in the wilderness, we face the hard things without distraction. And the hard things bring us back to what matters most.
In our family, we’ve had some hard things this past year—loss that has brought us to our knees, illnesses that threaten the lives of our beloveds, griefs that are hard to carry. These things have indeed brought us back to what matters most. And we’ve found what matters most is really quite simple.
Simple, but not easy. What matters most is expressed well at Jesus’ baptism. “Behold my beloved. With him I am well pleased.” Cherishing. Cherishing is what matters most. It’s another way to say “unconditional love.” To be cherished, and to cherish. This is what we were made for.
In the wildernesses of this life, there is real danger. It is possible to get lost there. But it is also the place where we can find our way back. Back to what really matters.
It’s not in the moments of celebration and victory that we return to love most readily. It is, rather, when we are broken, when we are caught up short. Those are the moments when, like a toddler with a room full of chocolate wrappers, our eyes widen, our pace slows, and we wait to see what happens next.
On that afternoon in our library, when I found George, here is what happened next. Just after he looked at me, with eyes wide open, I looked back at him. My eyes grew wide, too, and then, I smiled. The beauty of that child, even and perhaps especially in his moment of abandonment to that chocolate, overcame me. And I cherished him. As he saw my smile, he began to smile. He realized all was well. This momentary giving way to the chocolate. It was okay. While the aftermath was not pretty, we both knew in that moment of our smiling at each other that we could work with the pile of wrappers, the stomach full of chocolate, and the moment of abandon that had led to the scene.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m me. Not God. Which means, for every story like this one, there are 10 more stories when I lost it. When what he got was not a smile, not cherishing.
We are, you and I, human. We are not capable of cherishing one another every single time we find ourselves in the wilderness, or facing a floor full of kisses’ wrappers. But, here is the beautiful thing: we are becoming more capable every day. That is what this Christian journey is all about—becoming capable of cherishing one another like God cherishes us.
The wilderness is where we learn how to love. It is a place of loss, a place where we doubt and rail and wonder if we are alone. It is there, at the wild edge of this life, that we return to what matters most.
So, welcome to the wilderness. May you face the things that scare you, may you sit with the grief you bear, the failure you fear, the questions you bring.
And, sitting cross legged, may you be greeted by the One who loves you just as you are, smiling at you. Cherishing you. And, in the center of all of it, in the very center of your whole beautiful, messy life, may you, with eyes wide open, smile back.
Sermon at St. John's, Johns Island
February 19, 2023 - The Last Sunday after the Epiphany
Good morning, St. John’s! What an absolute joy it is for me to be with you today! I’ve been so eager to get here. Your priest, the Rev. Canon Calhoun Walpole, better known to all here and across our diocese as Callie, is a gift and a blessing. Callie, I am so profoundly grateful for you. Your gifted, faithful, tireless leadership in the Herculean task of setting St. John’s on solid footing as we welcome back this historic parish and prepare for a bright and bold new season here is truly a labor of love. And, to each and every one of you who have given of your time, your talent, your treasure—day in and day out—thank you. Whether you are very new here, have loved this place for many years, or somewhere in between, your presence is a gift.
The work you all have done together already in the months since you began this season in June is so inspiring. Already, you have vibrant ministries, already the campus looks fabulous, already you have welcomed newcomers and longtime members into the fold here at St. John’s.
As some of you may know, last week, I traveled to the Dominican Republic. Our longstanding and strong relationship with the Diocese of the Dominican Republic is due in large part, as are many good things in this diocese, to the leadership and enduring commitment of Callie. She and others in our diocese have nurtured this relationship for decades. And you all generously hosted Bishop Moisés and his wife Jeanette here just a few months ago. I am so glad to be stepping into the work with all of you and eager to take next steps in furthering our partnership there.
There is a custom in the Diocese of the Dominican Republic of a procession through the local community immediately preceding the Opening Eucharist for Convention. It is quite a strong public witness. Children come into the street to join the procession. People come onto their porches or balconies seeking a blessing from the bishops in procession. Folks wave and greet one another. It is a scene teeming with life, evidence of the profound impact the church is making in local communities across the country.
And, it was hot. Really hot. We marched for over an hour in the heat on dusty roads, fully vested. I realized, by the end of that hour, what a wimp I am. The procession made its way into the ministry center in San José. Stepping into that air conditioned building was quite a relief.
I couldn’t help but think a bit about the Transfiguration. The whole afternoon was, for me, a mountain top experience. But one moment will stay with me for a long while. As we moved through the streets greeting the people, I noticed on one particular porch, a small girl, her teenage older sister, and their abuela, I believe—their grandmother.
I smiled, waved, and gave a simple greeting. The little girl and I had a moment of smiling at each other. I waved to her. She waved back most enthusiastically. The older girl, presumably her sister, did the same. Then, the matriarch, likely their grandmother, looked me directly in the eye, smiled, put her hand on her heart, as if to say, “thank you.” It is a gesture I love and often use myself, as I believe it translates most everywhere. I returned the same greeting to her, putting my hand over my heart. Perhaps she was glad for the exchange between the youngest child and me. Perhaps she was reflecting her appreciation of l’Eglesia Episcopal and the many services they provide in her community. Perhaps she was simply enjoying the moment of a parade. I’ll never know. And it doesn’t really matter.
What matters is that in that moment, for just that moment, all the barriers that naturally exist between us fell away. And we communed together through one simple gesture. She, a wisdom figure who has certainly endured things I shall never know. Her two young ones, who graced me with their beaming lovely smiles. And I, the newcomer to their beautiful land, soaking it in, receiving the gift. It was a moment when the simplest exchange became luminous.
Today, we heard the story of the transfiguration. Like our band of disciples on the streets of Santo Domingo, Jesus and his closest friends had been on a hot, dusty path up the mountain side. They got to the top, exhausted, I imagine, from the pace and public life they kept. Then, came this moment. A moment when Jesus’ closest friends stand at the top of this mountain and watch Jesus change. Jesus dazzles, the text says.
And then, Moses and Elijah appear, representing the law and the prophets—or the boundaries of a life and the promise of a life, we might say. And Peter wants to stay there—to build booths and live there. But he didn’t get to do that. He was kind of missing the point.
Because the story is not primarily about savoring the light, much as we may want to. The primary tension in the story is the perennial struggle we face to see beyond our limits—beyond the dust that is who we are, as we will proclaim on Wednesday—to our promise—to the luminous, dazzling beauty, often eclipsed from our sight, but always right here, within us, that is also who we are.
Transfiguration is the experience of seeing the light beyond the dust and remembering there is more, so much more, than we have come to believe there is—within us and all around us. On one particular hot day, Jesus’ closest friends receive the gift of remembering.
For one brief, shining moment, the veil was pulled back. And they saw the truth. They dazzled. The light, the beauty, the glory shone through, past the dirt, the exhaustion, the discouragement.
It is always there, this luminous beauty. Only, most of the time we miss it, preoccupied as we are with our worries, with the many demands we face, with our grief, our uncertainty, with our complex lives in this world. The beauty gets eclipsed.
But, when we follow Jesus, particularly up the hard climbs, as you are doing, particularly on the hot, dusty roads that require our full bodied response—cleaning gutters, scrubbing kitchens, feeding hungry children, offering shelter to others, staying by the side of those in pain, building community—particularly when we do these things, we get moments. Moments when, just briefly, we see behind the veil. Someone puts her hand on her heart as the beautiful abuela did in our parade. Someone looks you in the eye. And you know, you know you are in the presence of holiness.
Here, in this historic parish, you are surrounded by the heavenly hosts of saints who have gone before you to prepare the way. People like the faithful lay members who with dedication and generosity rebuilt the parish after the great fire that swept across the island in 1864 and decimated this holy place. And people like many of you who now tend this place and care for it with acts of generosity and labors of love.
I want to take a moment to speak directly to those of you about to be confirmed, received or to reaffirm your faith.
I want you to remember, every day, that you are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses. You may not see them, but they are here. In the walls, in the stories, in the sacred ground on which we stand. And, too, all around you—are living saints. People who walk with God in a myriad of ways and who will walk with you, if you let them.
They are present with you today, and they will surround you, uplift you, and illumine your path for the rest of your lives. You are not alone.
So, in times of trial, of discouragement—when your way seems unclear, when you are weary—look to them. Let them carry you through the fires that inevitably come your way. Just as those who have gone before you here did in their day. Behold the light. And then, share it. Take it out with you. In real and tangible ways in this community. This is what it means to be church.
The way of Jesus is not an easy path. He will lead you on hot dusty roads, up steep mountain paths, to serve those with needs that may overwhelm you at times, to forgive opponents who may confound you at times, to get up from falls that may overcome you at times.
But always, just when you imagine you cannot go one more step, if you look just a bit further, you will see something unexpected. In the midst of the ordinary, the veil will give way. And you will see, as surely as I saw it in the abuela’s eyes meeting mine and in her hand over her heart—you will see the luminous presence of the Holy One.
And in that moment, you will find strength—strength for the valley below you, strength for the challenges ahead of you, strength for the grief you carry from the past.
Always, you are surrounded by the light.
You must only lift your eyes to see it just beyond the dusty road.
Thank you, St. John’s, for carrying on the work of the saints who have gone before you in this holy place. May you always see the dazzling light that surrounds you here. And may you always be the light that you behold.
Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany - February 5, 2023
As a child, I loved gardening with my mother. From the time I was very young, I took delight in the whole process. Mama taught me how to push a seed into the soil, to water and watch it grow.
I caught on from an early age to the idea that you could take the seed of a fruit or a cutting of a plant and put it in the soil, and it would take root. There were times when I was a bit over zealous with this. I would plant peach cores, apple seeds, small toys, dog bones, blooms from flowers—always hoping for great things. I’d watch, but nothing would come up. I’m not sure what I expected, but I was ever the optimist. You might say I showed promise as a church planter from an early age. My problem was not being a gardening minimalist. I was trying to be helpful, but my methods did run the risk of choking the life out of the plants I surrounded with all my additions to the primary garden.
Eventually, we got a cutting—a very special cutting—of the fig tree from my grandmother’s yard. This one, my mother did not leave to chance—once it was in the ground, she impressed upon me the importance of not planting all manner of things around it. It needs room to grow, she told me. Room to take root. Don’t crowd it. Tend it. Those were her messages.
That cutting did, in fact, take root and became the source of much joy to me for all my growing up years. It was a small sapling at first—but by the time I was old enough to pick and prepare the fruit with my mother, it was a strong young fig tree.
My grandmother gave us the cutting when she was moving out of her home to live with her daughter, my aunt. In retrospect, I realize it was a hard time for her, a time of grief and loss. The tree, too, was stressed in a yard that had seen neglect as her health began to fail. Still, it had life in it. She knew that and got the cutting to us so her beloved tree could see a new season.
In one of my favorite images from the musical, “The Secret Garden,” which I shared with you all at our first Convention together, the young gardener Dickon sings to Mary about the garden the grownups had left to seed. When Mary saw it, she thought surely it was dead. But Dickon taught her to look deeper. “When a thing is wick, it has a life about it,” Dickon sings. “Now, maybe not a life like you and me. But somewhere there's a single streak of green inside it. Come, and let me show you what I mean.”
That is the sense we had about that fig tree. If not dead, it surely looked depressed. We were not sure it’s future. But then, with loose soil and a lot of care, it blossomed again.
Gardens where death and life run side by side are central in our Judeo-Christian tradition. In fact, our journey with the struggle to survive death begins in a garden we call Eden. The tree of life and the tree of the cross have become two facets of one truth for us. Death, suffering, and the seed of new life are inextricably intertwined in our Christian story.
Gardening is a central image of God’s work to transform the suffering of this world into the garden of Eden once more.
The idea of the garden as a place of healing and new life runs through Hebrew poetry and prophecy. This morning’s text from Isaiah is set about a hundred years after the Jews’ return from exile. They had returned home from exile to a desolate land. Not unlike the desolation we’ve seen recently in Ukraine, in the holy land, around our world, and even right here in our diocese.
But the garden of Israel was not dead. It was, as the character Dickon says to Mary in the beloved story of the Secret Garden—wick. That is to say, it had a life buried deep inside it that would come back into full bloom with proper care. And so the passage we just heard ends with this beautiful piece of poetry:
“…You shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail. Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.”
This renewal will occur, the prophet says, if the people loose the bonds of injustice, if they let the oppressed go free, if they share their bread with the hungry, welcome the poor, and honor their own kin.
God says the way they will be able to do all these things is through their own fasting. Fasting is something the people did not just do as an act of self deprivation or exertion of will power—rather, it was something the people did to give outward sign to their grief. The Israelites fasted when they mourned. The fasted when they experienced loss.
The fast God requires makes us hunger with those whose bellies ache from starvation, makes us freezing cold and despondent with those who have no place to lay their heads, makes us burn with anger with those under the rod of oppression.
So, then, the question becomes, what do we do with all of this visceral connection to suffering? Self righteousness has a short shelf life. And, simply naming the problems is easy–we all can do that on a bad day.
Isaiah has a pretty clear answer. We stop pointing fingers; we refrain from speaking evil. And we act. Listen to the verbs he uses…loose, undo, free, share, break, bring, cover, offer, satisfy, repair, restore.
Our distress becomes the seed of our ability to let our light shine in this world, as Jesus calls us to do—or, as the prophet writes—our ability to do justice, to be the watered garden for those in need.
I do not believe it an overstatement to say that the grief we bear, when we allow it room, when we pull off the layers, becomes the strength by which we loose the bonds of others and free them, like the wick plant becomes a source of green, growing life. Our own pain is the seed that grows to be the bread we break and share with others. By these actions, we repair and restore the world around us.
I’m not glorifying suffering. I don’t wish it on any of us. But it is simply a fact that through our wounds, we can help to heal others.
You, dear people of Okatie, have sustained losses in this community. I’ve seen how you tend to one another, letting the roots deepen. I’ve seen that and heard it since the first time I came to visit you. Your love for each other is tight knit; it is strong; it is enduring. And, it is your gift to this world.
The love you have built here is the gift you have to offer beyond these walls, to the people in this community. It is the fruit that can be shared.
This week is the year anniversary of the loss of our beloved nephew Max. A number of you reached out to me during that most painful time. Max was very dear to me and close to us. It is still hard to believe he is not here with us. It is a pain I carry every day. I know some of you carry such pain each day as well.
This terrible loss has left me with a pain I wish I did not have. And yet, I have also come to understand during this year, as more people than I can count have asked to speak to me about their own similar losses, that is a pain from which I can help others—a pain that lets me tend the needs and wounds of those around me. It is the wick planting that bears fruit in my life.
When we tend the parts of our lives that seem almost gone as a worshipping community—when we bring to the altar those places where we struggle just to make it through another day, then, through our life together, those places in us become the green, growing shoot from which the fruit of the Spirit can grow.
Back when we planted the fig tree, Mama got an idea. There was a friend of the family named Mrs. Cheney who was a renowned cook in our home town. She had published cookbooks and was something of a local celebrity—and a fine Episcopalian, I might add. So, Mama asked her if I could go to her kitchen and learn to make fig preserves. She agreed to teach me. I still remember it like it was yesterday—boiling the bottles, stewing the figs with the lemon and sugar. Thereafter, each season, Mama and I would make preserves to share. From that first little cutting from my grandmother’s distressed tree, we shared joy with many households over the years.
Thank you, Okatie, for letting your roots with each other go deep—deep in grief, in mourning, in hope, in healing. The love you know here in this small but mighty beloved community might just be the fruit that someone beyond these walls is hungering to taste.
For you are wick; you have a life about you. You are the holy shoot in the watered garden. May the deep roots you have planted here nourish fruit you bring to your neighbors beyond these walls—in ways simple and profound, for years to come.
Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany - January 29, 2023
When I was a girl, my parents would sometimes invite me to offer the blessing at our family dinner table. I think I had absorbed even at my young age that the main point of saying grace was to ask God to bless the food and to be grateful for our family.
So, when my opportunities to pray came, I would begin in the usual way--bless the food—bless the hands that made it, bless our family. But then, I would keep going… bless my big sister Ann’s new chalkboard (of which I was greatly envious), bless the salt, bless the pepper…bless Puff (my dog), bless Pepe, (Ann’s dog—whom I didn’t really want to bless). And on I would go in this blessing of mine, holding forth while everyone’s eyes were necessarily closed for as long as I was moved to pray. As the youngest at the table, it was really quite a fine moment for me.
Invariably, when I finished, my mother would say one thing: “What a lovely blessing!” No matter how wandering, how lingering, how nonsensical it had been. I always anticipated her words with joy. With that one exclamation, my mother blessed me. Blessed my place as a person of equal importance to all the other bigger people at the table.
And in that moment, I felt fully, completely, unreservedly home.
Today, three of our lessons speak in complementary and compelling ways about what makes us feel fully, completely, unreservedly home with God. In other words, what is the home God makes for us—the place we call kingdom—really like?
In one of the most beloved and best known portions of the Old Testament from the prophet Micah, Israel has become alienated from God’s kingdom. As a nation, she has sinned with disregard for all God has done for her. And so, as Micah tells the story—Israel seeks to make it right. Micah knows the people are losing their footing in their own home. Soon, his prophecies come true and the people of Israel are cast out of their home by foreign nations. In this poetic portion of his writing, Micah imagines a scene in which the people ask—how can we return to that experience of being at home with God?
What do you want? Israel asks…Better worship, burnt offerings? Thousands of rams, tens of thousands of rivers of oil? The litany sounds like the over promising we do when we know we’ve messed up. “I’ll never do it again—I’ll buy you whatever you want”…or—remember this one as a kid—“I’ll clean my room every day”…or “I’ll pay you double.” All of our grandstanding in the face of our own sin is an attempt to restore the feeling that all is well as it used to be—that we are at home again with each other.
But, what Yahweh says is this— “I don’t want all that. I don’t want your over reaction. All I require is that you do justice, act with loving kindness and walk humbly with your God.”
The Psalmist echoes a similar theme, asking, “Who may dwell in your tabernacle, who may abide upon your holy hill?” In other words, “Whom will you welcome to be at home with you, O Lord?”
The answer involves no elaborate effort—but rather, the simplest offerings—to do what is right, to speak truth from one’s heart. These are the things that make one at home in God’s tent.
And, Jesus, in the sermon on the mount, lays out for the first time his vision of the kingdom of God—the home God builds. He describes not aspirational goals for how to earn God’s favor—but rather, he paints a picture of what God’s household is like when one is inside. It is a place, he says, where the poor in spirit are nearest to its essence, a place where those who mourn find comfort, a place where those who are meek inherit the earth…a place, in other words, where many of the worst the qualities of this world are inverted.
All three of these beautiful texts tell us about our truest home. The place God means for us to abide. It is not a place where we are expected to be perfect or to offer elaborate worship or excessive gifts. No, all three texts written in very distinct contexts, describe the simplest things that bring us home to the dwelling place God has prepared for us. Mercy, loving kindness, justice, truth, peace, pure hearts. These are the lovely blessings of our God. These are the blessings we are meant to be in the lives of others. When these blessings are present, we are inside the kingdom. We are home.
And the best part is that none of these things happen absent the messiness of life. None of them require as a precondition perfection or nice neat tidy caricatures of real life. Each quality shines brightest, in fact, in the midst of the full catastrophe of human existence—mourning, meekness, hunger, thirst, our work for justice, our loving kindness—all of these qualities, when you think about it—occur in the very center of our feeble human condition. Just as I received my mother’s blessing in the midst of my wandering, messy prayer, so we receive the deepest blessings of our God right in the center of our wandering and our messes.
Dear friends, I am so deeply glad to be here with you in this beautiful historic church—a place you have cherished and tended for so long. A place generations before you have also tended. You know, when I first heard from members here, it took me a moment to understand what was happening. Victor and Keith can tell you that those first couple of phone calls had me a bit confused. Because they were asking—very politely—“Where’re you been, Bishop? We’d like to see you!” And I couldn’t understand because I thought the the folks calling me were from the other diocese. So, I was like, “I can’t exactly come see you without the blessing of your bishop.” And what I heard was, “You are our bishop—we are Episcopalians!” Now, I had not understood this. And I’m not saying this to disparage ACNA folks.
What I learned when I had my first meeting with some of you in leadership here, is that you have always experienced this place as your home—and you have simply carried on, regardless of the world, or in this case, the church around you. You have carried on, I have learned as I listened to you in the early days, not because of any hierarchy or particular dogma. No, you have carried on because this is home. In the terms of our scriptures for today, this is a place where you have done justice, practiced loving kindness and walked humbly with your God. This is a place where you have done what is right, where you have spoken the truth from your heart. And because of these practices, this is a place where you have been able to mourn to make peace, to stand firm when persecuted. This holy tent called St. Bartholomew’s is your home.
It hasn’t really mattered to you, I’ve learned, who was your bishop—not that you don’t care about us bishops—but it’s not the thing, really. Nor has it mattered who was running things beyond the parish or what politics they had. I’m not being naivé. There are differences that are real and that do matter to you—I understand that.
But I think what has mattered most to you are the simple things—the things that have blessed you and by which you have blessed others—mercy, love, forgiveness, justice, vulnerability, truth. When we give and receive these gifts, we bless one another. And where we are blessed, there we are home. Home is where we are blessed.
Imagine a world marked by the character of home Micah, David, and Jesus describe in our texts today—a world marked by justice, by loving kindness and mercy—a world marked by true hearts and right actions—a world marked by vulnerable spirits unafraid to mourn, honest about their poverty—a world marked by courageous souls willing to feel their ache for righteousness, willing to make peace and stand with the oppressed even when doing so means they will be attacked. Imagine how different this world would be.
This world that Jesus, David, and Micah describe—this is the dwelling place of our God. The tent he pitches where we can abide. Ours is the holy, humble work of making that home visible and accessible—here in this community, everywhere God calls us to go. By each faithful step we take together in witness to the Lord of Love, our lives become the prayer that blesses others.
Thank you, St. Bartholomew, for all the ways you have been a blessing to this community for all these years. Thank you for staying true to your calling. I am eager to see how God works through you in the years to come, and I am honored to walk alongside you as your bishop.
And, I understand there will be messes. In fact, I welcome them. I hope you do too. The road ahead may not always be easy. We have much to forgive, much to let go of—so that our arms are free to embrace what is to come.
This is the time for us to take our first, tenuous, beautiful next steps together. With our eyes closed in trust, may we offer the simple prayer that is our lives. Our beautiful, imperfect, messy lives.
For when we offer our lives as blessing—no matter how wandering, how lingering, how nonsensical they may be, invariably, from the one who has always seen our true beauty — will come the response we anticipate with child-like joy: “What a lovely blessing!” And we will know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, we are home.
May you know, strong, wise, steadfast parish of St. Bartholomew’s, just what a lovely blessing you are.
January 22, 2023 - Third Sunday after the Epiphany
Just two months before the pandemic shut the world down, I helped our younger son, John, move into his dorm room after a semester abroad. It was a cold, rainy day when we moved him in. Getting his refrigerator up the two flights of stairs nearly did me in. I was the one lower on the stairs. John kept saying, “Mom, lift higher!” I kept trying to raise that box more. As I did, I would let out a bit of a groan with each heave. I think I was secretly hoping some uber-fit 21-year-old would have pity and offer to help us on the stairwell. But, no such luck. They were busy getting their own loads in. I think my lack of lift gave John a backache that lasted a few months from his overextending to compensate for me. Still, I made it. When kids stopped by the room, I casually said, “Yeah, we just go the fridge in…” like it was no big deal. John just looked at me, like, “Seriously, Mom?”
As we went back and forth carrying boxes into John’s dorm, I was having another experience. My husband and I attended the same college. So, being back there is always a bit like an excavation exercise. I uncover layer upon layer of memories. John’s dorm was one where I visited friends many times.
While I’ve long since forgotten exact rooms, I recognized the feel of the place, the shape of the rooms, the architecture of the building.
We live with a certain amnesia about the geography of our lives. Old rooms we have occupied, roads we have taken, restaurants where we have dined, cities we have visited—are buried in our memories like sediment. Sometimes we excavate them; more often, we do not. They just remain there as silent informants of our present and, to some extent, determinants of our future.
One of my favorite words in our Christian tradition is the Greek word, Anamnesis. We use it to describe what we do each week in Holy Communion. It means “making the past present.”
Anamnesis is the heart of our eucharistic liturgy; it is the inverse of amnesia. In the act of the eucharist, a simple meal, prepared and received at the altar each week, we make Christ’s sacrifice present again.
In today’s gospel, Jesus also makes the past present again by choosing to live in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali. These are not just any cities; they are ancestral lands of Israel that had been taken by Assyria. When this happened, these regions became alienated from the rest of Israel; they became Gentile territory. Yet, the land was home to both the descendants of Jacob and the Gentiles. Jesus knew this all too well. He chose to go to ground zero of tensions between Jews and Gentiles. Why? For one purpose only: healing.
It is to the places where people have known the pain of division that He goes first. He knows, if healing can happen there, where distrust has taken root like a predatory vine, if healing can happen there—it can happen anywhere. So, to those communities, he brings light.
Matthew tells us Jesus moved to this area after Herod killed john the Baptist—another experience, centuries after Isaiah wrote, that created enmity—this time between the Roman Empire and the Israelites. Matthew quotes Isaiah: “The people who have walked in darkness have seen a great light.”
Jesus comes proclaiming a light that can heal divisions, even between Assyria and Israel, even between Rom and Israel. And he chooses to launch his message in the geography where this pain has been keenly experienced.
Writing even earlier than Matthew, Paul exhorts the Corinthians to find a higher calling than their divisions, too. He says to the Corinthians, “I’ve heard what y’all are doing,” (that’s the Southern version). “Claiming – I’m with Paul, or I’m with Apollo.” And our Presiding Bishop’s personal favorite—Chloe’s people.
Presiding Bishop Curry says every congregation has a Chloe—you know, the ones who keep the pot stirred. Layers and layers of enmity build up when we gossip and harden our hearts toward those with whom we are in conflict.
And all the time, right under our noses, right in the midst of our disagreements, treasure sits buried in the holy sites upon which we stand. All the time the treasure sits, waiting to be excavated. It rests in our collective memory, like my son’s college dorm rests in my memory—our holy sites—like this beloved place—hold the truths for which our spirits long—the truths half known, half remembered, but hidden from plain sight.
In the very sites where his people had known the most bitter division, Jesus made his home. From that place, he proclaimed the light Isaiah had foretold—the light that brings an end to every division. Into that light he called humble, faithful men and women. Simple folk who were mending nets, catching fish, tending fires. People like James, for whom you are named. He called them to follow him—to start a movement that would bring the light to every place where it had become hidden.
This, my beloved friends, is his call to us still. From a season of division that has cost us much—that has left great wounds, he calls us to remember whose we are. He calls us back into the light.He calls us to anamnesis—to make present those from the past, those first pioneers who held services here on this island—more than 200 years ago. He calls us to carry on the lineage of saints who followed him amid wars, hurricanes, and plagues.
In this sacred place, saints before us have trod and served. In this sacred place, lost souls have been saved, downtrodden have found help, oppressed peoples have found freedom.
Let the walls speak to you. Let the trees talk. Let the quiet chapel at the water’s edge behind this church beckon you back to the light that has always shone forth here. This is a place whose walls have always held the faithful and propelled the faithful out to serve those in need. Our divisions are not the story that endures. Any more than Zebulun and Naphtali’s history with Assyria was the story, Jesus wanted those first fishermen, including James, to tell.
No, it was a story far grander, far truer to the land on which they stood together. “In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he will make glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations. The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them light has shined.” This is the story Jesus came to bring to full flourishing. This is the story into which he calls you and me. We are here, in this sacred place that has seen generations. We are here to carry the light forward.
The college our sons attended—and that my husband and I attended a generation earlier, has Quaker roots. The motto for the school is “Mind the Light.” Each time I return, whether to move my son into his dorm room in the freezing rain, or to hear a concert or attend a graduation, I have the experience of anamnesis—of the past being present—the great cloud of witnesses who have gone before our little family.
I remember people no longer with us who once walked the halls. I remember old loves and old friends in the halls of a dorm I once visited in days gone by. And, every time, in each visit, no matter the occasion—sad, joyous, or poignant—I am pulled forward by that motto— “Mind the Light.”
I am so very glad to be with you, back in this historic church that has been part of our Episcopal history for over 300 years. I am grateful, so grateful to each of you and all you have done to care for this place—now and in years gone by.
I am saddened that we ever had divisions and strife. It is never what we would wish. I don’t say this out of naiveté about our differences. They are real and they matter. And for our part, as Episcopalians, we understand our commitment to God’s radical love and justice is central to our life together. But that doesn’t mean we must hold on to the rancor. And I hope and pray that one day, our sad divisions may end—fully and finally—swept up in the joy the prophet describes.
I want to give you the same admonition my son John gave to me when we were carrying that refrigerator up the stairs in his dorm—if you find yourselves tempted to focus on former divisions—lift higher! If you find yourselves discouraged by the daunting task of re-opening this historic parish—lift higher! If you find yourselves wondering if we can move forward past divisions to be communities working alongside each other for the sake of the gospel of Jesus Christ, lift higher!
Our Lord will end our sad divisions in the church and in this world one step at a time—each time you and I respond in faith to his call to the humble and holy work of minding the light. May that work lead us to feed the hungry—as happens each week in the little building on the edge of our grounds. May that work lead us to clothe the naked, to lift up the oppressed and lend them our voices, to teach our children the way of love, to proclaim the way of light, of hope, of justice, of healing.
May we say “yes” to the invitation to follow the Lord of Life in this day, buoyed by the saints whose courageous lives of faith are written in walls, soaked in the earth that holds the trees, and whispered over the waters that flow in the marsh behind us. May we, each and everyone one, with every fiber of our being, follow the one who heals all divisions, who makes justice for all God’s children roll down like mighty waters, who makes the weary run again, who lifts our spirits like a heavy load up many stairs.
May we, each and every on, mind the light. For this is our sacred calling. AMEN.
"For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating; for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight….The wolf and the lamb will lie down together."
This text from the third section of the book of Isaiah that we heard on Sunday was written after the remnant population of Judah had been freed from decades of exile in Babylon. You know what people say—“it may be good for the wolf, but I’m not so sure about the lamb.”
I believe you can relate—you who have known schism, you who have been disenfranchised over our long history, you who have experienced being aliens in a strange land. You who for any reason have experienced the world as something other than the dream of God for us. This passage reflects a core truth of the Christian gospel: God is changing this world to make it as it was meant to be—a place where a wolf and a lamb can actually lie down together.
The Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas, Inaugural Dean of the Episcopal Divinity School at Union Theological Seminary and Canon Theologian at the Washington National Cathedral, says this when reflecting on Dr. King’s understanding of a moral imagination rooted in today’s text from Isaiah: “A moral imagination is grounded in the absolute belief that the world can be better. A moral imagination envisions Isaiah’s “new heaven and new earth,” where the “wolf and the lamb shall feed together,” and trusts that it will be made real (Isaiah 65). What is certain, a moral imagination disrupts the notion that the world as it is reflects God’s intentions.”
As Christians, we live in-between the new heaven and the new earth Isaiah describes and the world as we know it now, too often marred by sin and pain. Our work, as people of faith, is recover a moral imagination about our world, so that we can build the world God dreams for us. To do this, we must learn to plant the dream in the center of our present reality.
National Geographic once carried a story that made quite an impression on me. The writer described the tradition of the Ama. The Ama are women in Japan who carry on a time worn tradition of free diving for sea food and for pearls. Diving into cold waters with limited sight of what lies beneath the surface, these women must be powerfully attuned to the ocean.
One of the most fascinating practices of the Ama was initiated by Kokichi Mikimoto, the founder of Mikimoto Pearls. He asked the women not only to search for pearls, but also to help plant the nucleus of a pearl in oysters then re-embed them in the ocean so he could cultivate pearls throughout the sea, even where there were none to be found. When the Ama resurface after replanting the oysters containing the nucleus of the pearl, they make a deep whistling sound called the Isobue.
Those who know the whistle say it is a painful sound to hear. It is a sound that reflects both the beauty and the pain of the sea. The vocation of the Ama is not so different from our own. Submerged in the waters of baptism, we are called to plant the pearl of great price, the hope of a new heaven and a new earth into the vast sea of challenge and pain in this world.
Our work this past year has included some planting of what we pray will be the nuclei of future pearls. I would like to highlight a few places where we have planted:
You have come through seasons of challenge. I believe now, we have the opportunity to turn toward the future, building on the strong foundation of the past in this historic diocese. Like the Ama, we can dive deeper and plant new treasures amid the landscape of our history. Treasures our world desperately needs.
When a Japanese girl is born into households with Ama lineage, the family celebrates by cooking a vibrant red rice. They know that the Ama will not die with their generation. I love this image of cooking the red rice—a celebration of such a singular calling. A modern day Ama said in an interview, “This is work without a beginning or an end. I wish to keep working for a long time.”
Likewise, this work of being Christians, being Church here and now is work without a beginning or an end. You and I step into the waters with all the ancestors to continue that which has no beginning, no ending. Ours is the privilege of continuing the journey.
Like the Amas, we are called to dive, attuning our Spirits not to our own fleeting impulses and desires, but to the call of God through our baptism. Trusting God is doing a new thing. Trusting that God is redeeming this world, forgiving the sinners, repairing the breaches, healing the broken hearted, restoring his justice, renewing his creation, reclaiming the lost. Trusting not in our own strength but in the goodness of our God. Trusting that the lamb and the wolf can actually both get a good night’s sleep, side by side. This is our sacred call.
So, boil the water, prepare the red rice. I want to keep working for a long time. I want to be a sea whistler, to learn my own Isobue. And judging by your presence for so many generations, around this holy table, in this beloved community, despite every challenge you have faced—schism, rejection, exclusion, neglect, disrespect,—judging by your faithful, strong, persistent presence here, I suspect you do, too.
Now is the time for us to dive deep into our baptismal waters. For, we are singers of the Isobue; we are the planters of the moral imagination of our God.
“For Demus Sake.” That is what my older brothers thought they heard my grandfather say each time he blessed our food around our table at holiday gatherings when we were all young. The question among our generation for years was, “Who is Demus?” A long lost relative? A little known saint? We were never quite sure. Until one day, our eldest brother found the courage to ask. It took our puzzled parents a moment—and then, with a smile on her face, our mother said, “Redeemer’s Sake, Sweetheart. Your grandfather is concluding the prayer in the name of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.”
And that, my beloved friends, is what a Southern accent will get you around the family table! What you think you hear may be entirely different than what is actually said!
For decades, our family gathered at my grandparents’ home for holidays. Then, as our family matured and my grandparents aged, the celebrations moved to our family table with my parents hosting. From the bowl of black olives and the bowl of salted pecans on the table to the beautiful tablecloths and napkins our mother used—everything told us these were special occasions.
The table was often a place of joy, a place where we wanted to linger, a place to tell the old stories again, to laugh out loud at their endings—as if we’d never before heard them, even though most of us could recite them by heart. Holidays were a sacred time. I still to this day feel my holiday table is incomplete without a bowl of black olives and a bowl of salted pecans.
It is also true that the sweet innocence that began at our grandparents decades earlier did not remain forever the same as it had been. There was division in our family and eventually there was even a lawsuit in my mother’s generation. For years, some did not speak to others. The closeness we had known was broken. There was illness and death too. There were years when seats that had been filled were empty. We felt the absence of those who were missing. That will be true for us again this year, as some we love will be missing from our table.
And too, in the earlier years at my grandparents’ and parents’ tables, what we enjoyed was created by the labor of others who were not at the table with us. For decades, those meals were prepared by people who worked for our family in a system rooted in racism and the inequity it fosters that has undergirded many white households in this country for centuries.
There was also denial of the experience of people close to us who were lesbian or gay—an invisibilizing of their lives and loves. These dimensions of family life were the pain that ran alongside the joy at our table. As my own family began to build our table life together, we too had times of joy and times of pain. To this day, we sometimes linger into the night to see something through.
At all of these tables, we have had the full range of experiences—both good and bad—common to family life. I have noticed one thing. When we make ourselves vulnerable—when we have the courage to make the table a brave space, these are the times when we grow.
It occurs to me that the trajectory of my family’s holiday table bears some striking resemblance to the trajectory of our diocesan table. We have known joy, customs passed with care from generation to generation. And, we have known division, lawsuits born of schism that involved people leaving the table instead of staying to work things out—and telling others they did not belong at the table. There has been loss through illness and death, and also, running like a fierce current beneath all the rest—multi-generational pain caused by racism, homophobia, and the making invisible of others who are different than the majority gathered at table.
When we come around the table, as we do now, we have an opportunity to disrupt all the old stories that tell us some people are better than others, the old stories that tell us disease, destruction, and sin have the final say. The old stories that tell us we cannot transcend our pain, our anger, our grief . We have an opportunity to prepare a table where we feast on bone deep justice, on gospel hope, on real redemption.
But preparing such a table takes effort. It takes courage. It takes humility. It takes stamina. Staying through the night, together, when we need to. Mostly, I believe, it takes vulnerability.
We, beloved members of this diocese, gather with much joy this day—the joy of being one body—one in mission, one in love, one in courage. You have been through the fires of division. As we gather at table this day, the first thing I want to say to you is thank you. Thank you for your witness, for your resilience, your courage, your clarity, your compassion. You inspire me, every day.
We also gather at table knowing the sting of trial. You have indeed been through the fires. We have had lawsuits a plenty. We have had people leave our table. We have had pain and loss and betrayal.
And, some among us have know the pain of disenfranchisement, the indignity of exclusion and injustice for centuries. Our African American congregations have not had the same seat at the welcome table that the rest of us have enjoyed—these members of our diocese did not get seat, voice and vote in this Convention until 1965. They have not had equitable access to resources, equitable voice or agency over the long arc of our history. Yet, they have stayed. Thank you to our African American congregations. Thank you for your grace-filled, strong presence among us.
Our LGBTQ members, too, have been turned away, shut out, and told they were not invited to serve, to serve in God’s church. Their very presence distributing elements of our communion was rejected. Thank you to our lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender members. Thank you for your grace-filled, strong presence among us.
Now, we have an opportunity. A choice is before us. We can paper over the cracks, as they say. As my closest friends would say, we can “make nice” about our challenges. Or, we can take another path. We can determine here and now to make new history. We can determine to ground our lives in the belief that God is building a new world. A better world. A stronger world. A truer world. We can decide to take this opportunity of our new season to do work that perhaps we have never done before in quite the same way—work to set a table of justice, of truth, of freedom, of fierce love for everyone.
This, I am confident, is our call. It is a call that demands our all. It is the call to 360 degree love, as Valerie Kaur would say. Love of self, love of neighbor, and always the most difficult one, love of opponent. For us to do this work well, we need to center the voices that have been silenced in the past—we need to listen first to those who have known the pain of not being granted full access to the table, those who have known the pain of displacement, of indignity, of alienation.
I believe we have the courage to build Isaiah’s new heaven and new earth.
I am so honored that our friends from beyond South Carolina have come to help us begin this new season, to set our table for the feast God longs to share.
Archbishop Cyril Ben-Smith, the Primate of West Africa is here to begin a journey of discovery with us as the International African American Museum prepares to open here in Charleston. The Archbishop presides over the dioceses where the ports of deportation are located for the people who made the tortured journey from those shores to ours to face the horrors of enslavement when they crossed onto land at Gadsden’s Wharf. We are thrilled to welcome you, Archbishop Ben-Smith!
Bishop Moises Quezada Mota and his wife Mary Jeanette Quezada Mota have come to be with us so we can rekindle our long relationship with the Diocese of the Dominican Republic. I have already been blessed by the wisdom and leadership of Bishop Moises in the House of Bishops, and I am eager to reinvigorate the longstanding partnership between our dioceses. We are delighted to welcome you Bishop and Mrs. Quezada Mota!
The Rev. Canon Stephanie Spellers, The Presiding Bishop’s Canon for Evangelism and Reconciliation, who leads people like us all over the church to build beloved community, is here to guide us in building one table that is strong and just and welcoming. Canon Stephanie, we know you to be a wise, deep, fierce priest, writer, teacher, and catalyst for change. We are so blessed by your presence!
The table is set for a feast these two days. May we begin a new season with open, vulnerable, brave hearts. This, I pray, for our beloved diocese—for Demus Sake—or, in case you need translation, for the Redeemer’s Sake.
Now, let’s hear from folks around the diocese who share their thoughts in the video we are about to see to help us set the table for our time together… (the video below was shown at this time)
Bishop Ruth Woodliff-Stanley
The Rt. Reverend Ruth Woodliff-Stanley was elected by the Diocese of South Carolina in May 2021, and consecrated as a bishop on October 2, 2021.