July 30, 2023 - Ninth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 12A)
There is a vault deep inside the Arctic Circle between Norway and the North Pole where open source software is being meticulously preserved for future generations in a decommissioned coal mine. This amazing repository, called the GitHub Arctic Code Vault, includes even the simple explanation of the purpose of a computer, anticipating the possibility of future life forms who have no awareness of what we use every day to connect to others in our world.
And an arguably even more important treasure exists close to this technology vault. Near the GitHub repository is another underground storage space, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. It contains seeds of millions of plants–a treasure chest that could allow the earth to repopulate much of the plant life we rely upon for sustenance and existence.
Talk about treasures hidden in fields!
With these two projects, humanity could start anew, should the need arise.
These projects are the result of wisdom—the wisdom to imagine the possibility that humanity may, indeed, one day need to begin again.
Wisdom begins with the recognition there could be knowledge we lack. Now, you know I would be remiss to preach this Sunday without some reference to either Oppenheimer or Barbie. So, first from Oppenheimer. “No man should escape our universities without knowing how little he knows.” Or, the same point made with irony by the inimitable Barbie when she says to Ken (who was quite sure there was no knowledge he lacked to do his highly-important job called ‘Beach’—not lifesaver or marine biologist, or engineer, mind you—but just ‘Beach’), sure of his boundless knowledge, “And what a good job you do at the beach, Ken!”
We have a lot of fear of not knowing. We are all Kens carefully hiding our ignorance at some time or other.
On this weekend of the 49th anniversary of the Philadelphia Eleven, I am reminded of the video footage of a priest who declared at the time—“Women can be many things—president, a judge, a physician…but there is one thing a woman can never be,” he said. Well, Eunice…here we are! Indeed, we are all Kens at one time or another.
Knowledge is highly revered, worshipped even, in our culture. After all, knowledge is power, we say. We want to know, and that is not a bad thing.
But knowledge apart from wisdom can put us in a perilous position. As Oppenheimer observed, we need to know how little we actually understand. When we think we know it all—we become, well, know-it-alls—which is a dangerous thing to be. The exploding field of AI brings this danger into sharp relief, as we consider the possibilities that our knowledge may already be outstripping our wisdom in ways that compromise our future.
It is the gap between our knowledge and our wisdom that Jesus addresses in today’s parables. In a world where knowing it all is the prized possession, Jesus is calling us to go on a quest to recover the pearl we have lost—our wisdom.
Wisdom is that priceless gift that allows us to appropriate knowledge for good, instead of for evil.
Because to be wise is to be humble about the vast fields of treasure we have yet to find. Wisdom is that place within us where we learn the practice of discovery, absent jaded hearts. Wisdom, you might say, is the kingdom of God within us.
It is our sacred duty, as followers of Jesus, to cultivate wisdom.Wisdom begins with our awareness of what we do not know.
Solomon is considered the wisest person in Hebrew Scriptures. How did this come to be so? In today’s Hebrew Scripture lesson, we discover that his wisdom began with an invitation from God, “Ask what I should give you.” Solomon knew what he did not know. He understood his need for wisdom. And that is what he asked God to give him. “And now, O Lord my God,” he says, “You have made your servant king in place of my father David, although I am only a little child; I do not know how to go out or come in. And your servant is in the midst of the people whom you have chosen, a great people, so numerous they cannot be numbered or counted. Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil.”
It was Solomon’s recognition that, even as a king—he was only a little child. He did not know, he told Yahweh, how to go out or to come in. This was the beginning of his wisdom.
In the passage we heard today from Romans, Paul describes what happens when we do not know how to pray: the Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit.
We live in an era of much knowledge—so much that it overwhelms us on a daily basis. Simply choosing a new kitchen appliance requires encountering more attention to data for that one choice than generations before us might expend in a lifetime of selecting means to tend to household chores. There are currently 9.1 million online retailers globally. And millions more local businesses. Decision fatigue is a real thing.
In the midst of a pace our ancestors could not have comprehended with choices that stagger the mind, what does it mean to seek the kingdom of God? Put another way, what does it mean to pursue the wisdom that comes from beyond our knowledge and capacity to generate and consume in this life?
Cultivating wisdom, which is another way of saying seeking the kingdom of God, begins at the edge of our knowing. It is to this edge that Jesus calls us.
Life inevitably brings us events we do not understand, much less desire or like. We are born to be attached to others, to this world, to our own lives. To love and be loved is our purpose. And that purpose necessarily involves suffering. When the suffering comes, it drives us to the edge. To the edge of our understanding. There, at the precipice of all we thought we knew, our most cherished companion is wisdom. If we try to live in the illusion that we know it all, when the trials come, that knowledge will surely fail us. But, if we make wisdom our companion, we will find we can begin again.
At the edge of all we thought we knew, the Spirit holds us in our unknowing with sighs too deep for words. There, we can begin again.
St. Catherine’s, you know the importance of this edge. Even your name reflects the value of wisdom—named as you are after Catherine of Alexandria, the patron saint of librarians and philosophers—those who spend a lifetime being curious about the knowledge they lack.
To follow Jesus in a world of certainty is to embrace the likelihood that there might be truths we had not even imagined that await us, buried deep underground like in the GitHub repository or the Svalbard Seed Vault, or tucked in a tiny seed, or hidden in an oyster bed.
As we confirm the newest seeker of the kingdom of God, Scot, this morning, I want to say—to you and to all who have come to this sacred community today, welcome to the field where we cultivate wisdom. Here, amid a culture where knowledge is power, welcome home to your not knowing. Welcome to your wondering, to your seeking, to you questions, to your curious mind. Welcome to the place where there is no shame in beginning again—where, in fact, to begin again every day is your sacred calling.
Here, in the beloved community of Jesus, we practice listening, wondering, seeking, and imagining that there is knowledge we have yet to discover. Knowledge that the Spirit has buried deep within us like scientists buried the github code vault and the seeds in the Arctic Circle.
Ours is the work not only of seeking wisdom, but of curating it, of caring for it, nurturing it, burying it to be discovered by those who come after us when they need it most.
May we rely upon the Spirit who groans with sighs too deep for words. May we tuck away treasures that those who come after us on this fragile earth may discover them and begin again. May we cherish our unknowing. May we seek the treasures another has placed within us. That finding them buried there with love, we, too, might find the courage to begin again.
June 4, 2023 - Trinity Sunday
Orion’s belt has always been my favorite constellation—because it is the main one I remember my father teaching me as a child. It was the one we most often looked for together.
I learned years ago from a friend about Orion’s neighbor—Pleiades, which is her favorite. I’d never paid much attention to this constellation until my friend shared some interesting perspective about it. She told me it’s a cluster of 800 stars located about 410 light years from Earth—named for the seven brightest stars in the cluster that represent the mythological seven sisters whom Zeus made into doves so they could fly away to escape Orion. Of course, Orion ended up right next to them in the night sky…so much for running away!
Pleiades also has a car named for it, the Subaru—which is the Japanese word for Pleiades. If you haven’t ever noticed, take a look at the logo on the next Subaru you see—it’s a stylized rendition of this constellation. Pleiades is celebrated in most every culture. We hear the author of Job speak of both my favorite and my friend’s favorite constellations in this question to Job: “Can you bind the beautiful Pleiades? Can you loose the cords of Orion?” (Job 38:31)
The most interesting thing my friend told me is this—you see stars that form Pleiades most clearly when you look away from them to their neighboring stars—when you look at the neighboring stars, then, Pleiades comes into sharp relief out of the corner of your eye. Try it sometime; it really does work.
Pleiades comes into focus kind of like we do. When someone loves you—really sees you for who you are and calls that you into play somewhere—like at work or home or in a circle of friends—then, particularly then, you come into full sharp relief. But when you are left unknown, uncelebrated, unseen, you are like a star out of focus—a dim, fuzzy light at best. We need others to illumine our own lives. In other words, our essence is relationship.
Today is Trinity Sunday in the Church. In the doctrine of the Trinity, we assert that the Divine is both one and many in a co-eternal relationship of love. As with Pleiades, the essence of the Trinity is best discovered not by focusing on each individual person of the Trinity but rather by focusing on the power and mystery of the relationships among the persons.
The Trinity is like the chemical reaction that happens in the night sky to create what we call stars. Through the dynamic relationship among the three who exist in a purposeful unity, the heavens and the earth were created. Through the dynamic relationship among the persons, the Son was raised from the dead. Through the dynamic relationship among the three, the fire of the Spirit launched the church into the world—bringing us to this very day.
Through that same dynamic relationship, you and I engage our baptismal promises and take them on in an even more seasoned way in Confirmation.
Now, in these days as our beloved neighbors and children and families fall in the streets from the ravages of gun violence, as our world reflects the agony of unjust wars, as our communities struggle to address the needs of those without shelter or care, as the fabric of our democracy frays and unravels, we need to lean into the dynamic power of the Trinity.
You already lean into this power, Epiphany. I know that about you.
Threads of the holy lives here that connect to one another and hold each other up, are in your DNA—birthed as you were by a millenary weaver of hats. You are a Trinitarian people.
To those of you being confirmed, received, and those reaffirming your vows this day, remember always, these sacraments are relational. By them, together with this community, you proclaim—this is who I am. I join the community of Christians all around the world in standing for love where there is pain, suffering, and evil. We are a relational people.
As baptized and confirmed members of the body of Christ, we find our intimacy with God through our relationships with one another. Like seeing Pleiades. We do not know God by ourselves in a vacuum; we know God in community.
Stargazers know of a phenomenon called the parallax. I often think of it when contemplating the Trinity. The parallax is a way of seeing in which multiple divergent perspectives interact to form a more complete view of something—like the two eyes we have give us depth perception. This phenomenon hints at the strength we find in the Trinity—three perspectives that give added depth to one reality. It is this wisdom that compels us to lean in even toward those with whom we disagree. For, in those relationships, we gain a more complete view, a deepened perception of truth.
To be Trinitarians, we must commit to be in relationship with those with whom we agree and those with whom we disagree. This does not mean we have to make peace with injustice. It does mean we do not have the liberty of demonizing the other, writing them off forever. There are those who practice evil in this world; they are hard to love. Yet, even so, the biblical witness is clear; no one is beyond the saving embrace of Jesus. On any given day, even the worst sinners can repent and begin anew. And our being in relationship with those folk, sharing the strong love of Christ, makes that possibility even more likely.
Mature Christian life involves engaging differences with the conviction that as we do, the fullness of God’s truth and beauty will come into sharper relief. If there is one means by which we can fulfill the great commandment we heard in today’s gospel, it is by creating communities of faith that foster true, deep, courageous relationships. Our state, our nation, our world, need to rediscover the capacity to build relational communities marked by truth, compassion, and courage. By these virtues, the world will come to see Jesus Christ and to know his love.
So, beloved ones, seek and serve Christ in all persons. Lean in to the holy relationships baptism gives to you and confirmation matures among you. By doing so, you will carry the good news of Jesus into the whole wide world.
Carry with you the truth the stargazers have always known. The Pleiades is best seen when we look at her neighbor. Jesus the Christ is best seen when we look at ours.
April 23, 2023 - Third Sunday of Easter
Easter week, Nathan and I had the chance to get away. While we were at the beach, I read a novel called Still Life by Sarah Winman—some of you may know it. Set mostly in Italy just after World War II, it tells the story of unlikely encounters and how these encounters lead to adventures that change the lives of the characters. One such meeting happens between the central character Ulysses Temper, a soldier, and Arturo Bernadini, whom Ulysses meets initially, on a rooftop, where Arturo’s life is in immediate, grave danger.
Skillfully and with no small risk to himself, and—without the benefit of a common language, Ulysses gets Arturo off the roof and down to safety. Afterwards, the two men sit in the kitchen of Arturo’s home. There, they make simple conversation, despite sharing no common language.
They view a photograph of a work of art still hanging in a church in Florence today—a piece depicting the moment Christ’s body was taken from the cross. After viewing this art, and considering what has just transpired—the rescue of Arturo by Ulysses, the two men stay at the table.
Arturo removes some floor tiles covering a hidden pantry and pulls out a bottle of wine, a candle, and a bit of cheese. Ulysses pulls out a can of ham and puts it on the table. Arturo begins to cry. “It’s only ham,” Ulysses says. But of course, the tears were not about the ham.
For two hours, they pour wine, eat cheese, and talk. For those couple of hours, time is suspended. Winman tells us, “They listened with hearts instead of ears, and in the candlelit kitchen three floors up in an old palazzo, death was put on hold. For another night or day or week or year.”
Up in an old palazzo, death was put on hold for another night, or week or year. And, in its place, life. Life, and hope for the adventure that lay ahead.
Such was the experience of the disciples on the road to Emmaus. Like Arturo and Ulysses, these friends had just experienced the trauma of crucifixion. And, then, the confusion of what happened in the night—a stone rolled back, a body missing, rumors he was alive, things they thought they had seen but could not make sense of.
Now, as they walk to get to a different place, where perhaps they can clear their minds and try to absorb recent events, they are joined by a person they do not recognize. He asks them questions about what has happened. They tell him everything. And then, in response, he tells them the story of their ancestors, their own story. As they listen, things begin to make more sense.
Not knowing, still, who he is, they nevertheless want him to remain. So, they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.”
Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.
The way they implore Jesus to stay with them on the road to Emmaus reminds me of a song that comes back to me during moments I don't want to see end:
The clock on the wall says it's time to go
but I know my heart really wants you to stay a while
Hear the seconds ticking by but outside the world is still
So before you have to go
Stay a while with me.
–Music and Lyrics by Carol Maillard
To me, this song is an Emmaus road lullaby. It’s about staying in a moment. Usually, it’s a moment we don’t really understand yet don’t want to have end. In such moments, if someone truly communes with us, if they manage to stay present to us there, then death, sorrow, and fear— are, indeed put on hold. And, in their place—with things as simple as a jug of wine, a crust of bread, a bit of cheese, a flicker of candlelight, comes life. And possibility.
When his friends urge him, Jesus stays with them. And it is in the moments that follow, sitting at table, breaking bread, in those moments, their eyes were opened, and they recognized him.
In moments when we are disoriented, by loss, by tragedy, or perhaps by strange new life, in those moments, like Arturo in the novel, like Jesus’ friends in the gospel, we need time across the table with one who sees us, with one who loves us as we are, with one who tells us what we need to understand. Such disorienting moments can be the precursor to new life, to a new possibility, to new adventure.
So, look for the Emmaus road.
It is the road for those who are disoriented, those who are curious, those who long for new adventure beyond loss.
On the Emmaus road, you find that most adventures worth taking begin just beyond what you do not understand.
Any adventure worth embracing involves some degree of being disoriented.
It is when we have lost the compass that we find the Emmaus Road.
Times when we are confronted with mysteries that bring us sorrow and mysteries that bring us strange, unfamiliar hope. Our Emmaus Road times happen infrequently, but when they do, we best pay attention.
This morning, I have the distinct honor of confirming, receiving and reaffirming vows with those of you who have chosen this path today. As you receive the power of the Holy Spirit this morning, the person of the Trinity who ushered in the new adventure for Jesus’ disciples, remember the first questions, the first disorienting moments that led those disciples to discover their new adventure began on the Road to Emmaus. So, in your own lives, seek the Emmaus road. Seek it when you are unsure, when you are afraid, when you are puzzled or confused.
Remember, in those times, to listen with your heart. Remember to entertain strangers and to become curious. Remember to open yourselves. For it is in such times when you are open that possibility can take root. It is in such times that your adventures will begin.
To the youth who are being confirmed, listen. I pray your lives will be filled with joy—so much joy. And, I know, too, that your life will bring hard times—because, that’s the way it is in this world. The beauty and the pain are intertwined. What I want you to see today is this community—all around you. These people who greet you every week—who call you by name, who laugh with you and listen to you and inspire your questions, your hopes, and your dreams—these people are your people.
This community is here for you—today, and for the rest of your lives. And, in those times when you feel disoriented, when you’ve experienced loss and even death—you can turn to this community. You can call up a priest or a lay person—or a bishop for that matter—from wherever in this world you are—and say, “Stay with me. Talk with me, Listen with your heart to me.” You can ask us to stay with you, a little bit longer. Invite us to walk your Emmaus Road with you.
And to you who are further along in life’s journey, if you think you must go it alone with all the burdens of this world, you do not. If you wonder who else will share the mystery of hope in your times of expectant joy, look around you.
Many years after Ulysses saved Arturo’s life then broke bread with him in his kitchen, he received a letter. “If you are reading this letter,” it said, “I am dead.” “Nine years have passed since our brief acquaintance. and the image of you seated across the table has led me across them all. Did I change my life sufficiently to reflect kindness you showed me that strange afternoon in August,” Arturo wonders. “I don’t know. I hope so. In my small way, I think maybe I did.” And then, Arturo says, “No single act of generosity remains in isolation—The ripples are many.”
I have been here only a short while as your bishop. But, I’ve been here long enough to discover that here, in this beloved place we call Grace, there is real community. Community that reflects resurrected life—life, that is, beyond death and its grip on us. A new kind of life—of the sort Arturo and Ulysses discovered. Of the sort the disciples and Jesus discovered on the road to Emmaus. This new life is resurrection.
And resurrection entails discovering what you least expected—huge, immovable stones rolled away, death defied, people understanding each other with no common language, morsels of life hidden in pantries under floor tiles, curious encounters that turn out to be sightings of the divine. Here, we practice such resurrection.
Here, no single act of generosity remains in isolation—the ripples are many. Infinite, I might add.
And so, as I lay my hands on those saying "yes" to this strange and beautiful journey, remember, wherever you roam, always, the road to Emmaus is yours. Always, this community is at your side, ready to ready to stay a little bit longer with you when you need us, ready to lift the floor tile, find a jug of wine, a crust of bread, and a flicker of candlelight to offer you at table. Ready to put death on hold for another night, or week, or year. And ready to help you find, in its place, at the table of the risen Lord, life and hope for the adventure that lies ahead.
March 5, 2023 - The Second Sunday in Lent
When I gave birth to our first-born child, it was a long labor. Twenty-three hours long, to be precise. At the end of the whole ordeal, when George had presented himself to the world, and I, too, was presentable, my brother ushered my father into the birthing suite.
Now, because it was a complicated birth, there was a team of 11 medical personnel in the room. Not to mention my sister and my sister-in-law. With a cooler. For snacks. In case the thing went on—which it did.
So, there is this priceless footage of my father taking in the scene. As he scans the birthing suite, sees the room full of people in white coats, the monitor, my own doctor, our family members, myself, and a very new George, as he sees all this, his facial expression goes from a smile to an open-mouthed gasp. As he walked back down the hall, he pronounced to my brother, “No more babies in my lifetime.” As if that were up to him.
Sometimes, we are just not ready for new birth. It’s messy. It’s scary. And, it’s mysterious.
Nicodemus was not ready for the new birth Jesus described to him. How could he have been? It made no sense. For an old man to go back into the womb. What did that even mean? What he wanted was eternal life. He did not go into the night seeking new birth, but rather, to extend the life he already had. Or perhaps to deepen the spiritual quality of his life.
But, the only way, Jesus told him, to extend his life was to be born again. It was a heavenly thing, Jesus said, not an earthly thing.
John 3:16 is one of the most over-exposed portions of the gospel we can find. Like a photograph left too long in the developing solution in the old days before digital cameras, this gospel has been exposed to the point at which its original image can hardly still be discerned.
To hear this text, we must peel back the layers of overfamiliarity with it. And approach it with wonder.
There is a painting of this scene between Nicodemus and Jesus painted by an artist in Cameroon, Africa. In it, Jesus, robed in red, responds to Nicodemus. The most notable aspect of the painting for me is the light. It moves across Jesus’ face and upper arm, making the unseen candlelight evident.
I appreciate this detail because it brings the viewer back with one glance to the initial context of the exchange, namely a secret meeting in the night by candlelight. A meeting for the purpose of seeking wisdom.
Little is known about Nicodemus. He appears only three times in the New Testament. Here, then later to argue that Jesus deserved a trial before being condemned, and finally, as the one to anoint Jesus’ body at death.
While Nicodemus, a learned man, could not risk meeting this simple rabbi in broad daylight, his fascination drove him to seek Jesus out in the secrecy of the darkness. In the flickering candlelight, he seeks to understand the mystery that is pulling him toward this controversial teacher. So, what does Nicodemus glean?
“For God so loved the world that he gave.” Had Jesus ended there, it would have been enough, we might argue.
The foundation of this text is there in the first phrase. “God so loved the world.” So much that he gave. Jesus tells Nicodemus that at the heart of the Divine human relationship are two things: love and gift.
And the next phrase--"his only begotten Son.” Not just any giving. “Begotten” is a phrase used in both Greek philosophy and New Testament writings to mean, at the very least “unique.” God gave, then, that which could not be repeated or replaced from within his own being. The most intimate gift.
“That whosoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”
This is the tricky part, which has come to mean, if you give some sort of assent to the premise that Jesus is God’s only son, you will live forever. Otherwise, you will perish. And more recently, has been added—and you’ll burn in hell.
The context for this verse appears two verses earlier when Jesus says, “Just as Moses lifted up the servant in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up.” This is an allusion to Numbers 21 where the serpent bit the Israelites after they complained. When they looked up at the bronze serpent, they could live. Jesus on the cross will become the completion of this image.
Belief in him has to do with keeping one’s eyes fixed on him in the midst of persecution, trusting that his gift of himself can save you. The image of the serpent helps us get this because the Israelites were saved, as long as they were looking upon it. This isn’t like holding your breath in a tunnel—where, if you let up for one second, you’ve lost the dare. It is, rather the path of giving oneself, one’s full being and attention, to that which transforms one in the midst of a real challenge. This understanding of belief is akin to being focused, being intentional.
There may not be any single thing more important to our spiritual health than developing the capacity to keep our eyes on God in the center of real challenge.
Three years after my father visited the birthing suite and declared, “no more babies in my lifetime,” I went to see him. “Daddy,” I said, “I’m afraid I must defy you.” “What?” he asked. “Well, three years ago, you declared no more babies could be born in this family in your lifetime. And, I’ve got to tell you, another one is on the way. And I want you to be here for the birth.” Eight months later, John was born. And my father lived to see him into this world.
We do not control birth. You and I cannot control God’s gift of a new spiritual birth any more than my father could control another physical birth in his family.
It comes as gift—a gift from above. And, it comes not in a neat package but rather in the center of hard labor, of messes, in the center of our fear and unknowing. There, where we are cracked open. In those places, when we keep our eyes on God and our hearts attuned to his love, we receive the gift of new life.
We do not see Nicodemus cracked open on this night when he questions Jesus. I imagine he was not entirely unlike my father—just wanting to declare that this new birth of which Jesus spoke was not going to happen in his lifetime.
But there comes another night, one where he again meets Jesus in the darkness. This time, he meets Jesus’ lifeless body in the tomb. With spices and oil, he anoints him. There, in his grief, in his wondering what would happen next. There, in the night, tending the body of this one he had come to love, perhaps this is when the words Jesus had spoken to him on a night long ago finally made sense. When we meet our grief with full presence and open hearts, we make room for new life.
There are times, like Nicodemus had in his first encounter with Jesus, when we want to declare: “This makes no sense. Times when we want to say, like my father said, “no more babies in my lifetime.” Or, put another way, “no more birth.” It is simply too messy, too much risk, too hard.
But, it doesn’t work that way. We are born again not because we are ready, but in spite of our disbelief, our fear, our resistance. Still, God’s new birth breaks in, shattering our preconceived ideas, upending our orderly lives.
You, my beloved friends, know a thing or two about being present in the nighttime, wondering how on earth a new birth could be possible after such loss and division. You have walked with courage in the night for many years. You have loved this church; you have grieved the division in this community. You have, truly, anointed the body of Christ, grieving the death of so much that could have been.
And I wonder if through your loving, tender anointing, even through tears, through anger, through messiness and confusion, I wonder if through your tender presence to this community you love so well, you have found the new birth Jesus gives to all who love him.
“For God so loved the world that he gave.” Had Jesus ended there, it would have been enough. For he has loved us. And he has given, more than we could ever ask or imagine. And you have done the same. Here, for years.
But he does not stop there. He goes on… “He gave his only begotten son.” That which was most precious to him. You have walked in this way, giving what is most precious to you, for so very long. Even in the center of your own pain, still you have showed up to this community and you have given.
So, I want to say as we worship together for the first time in this beautiful historic church, keep doing what you are doing. Keep loving this world of yours as God loves you, and keep giving. And know, that while you may wish to declare in the spirit of my father—“no more babies in my lifetime!” No more messy birth—be forewarned. The Holy Spirit will defy that wish. And He will give you the birth from above over and over again in this beautiful place we call Cheraw.
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.
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.
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.