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.
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.