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.
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.