The Letter N and the Growth of God/Sermon July 27, 2014

In 1933, the Nazis began a very public campaign to destroy the Jewish people – their livelihoods and their lives. As a hallmark of that systemic violence, they began to paint a yellow Star of David, the six-pointed star that had become a symbol of Judaism, onto the front of Jewish homes and businesses all over Germany and beyond. Over the next 10 years, the Nazis would target and brutalize various groups of people including the Jews, eventually forcing those living in towns and concentration camps to wear garments with that same Star of David.

"Jude", or "Jew" and a Star of David were painted on Jewish businesses and homes beginning in 1933 in the Nazi persecution of the Jewish people.

“Jude”, or “Jew” and a Star of David were painted on Jewish businesses and homes beginning in 1933 in the Nazi persecution of the Jewish people.

By contrast, the Nazis used the symbol they adopted, a swastika, so much that it became synonymous with their particular brand of evil. Despite the Nazis best efforts to destroy the Jews by using their own marker of heritage against them, the Star of David is still very much in use by the Jews, while the swastika remains buried with the Nazis.
All of that happened 70 to 80 years ago. When so much time passes, when things become so far distant from what we are experiencing today, it’s hard to feel a connection to important events in the past, even if our shared experiences were once very fresh, and very sharp. It may have been difficult at times to find a way to feel connected to the parables of Jesus that we’ve been reading in Matthew over the last few weeks – parables that were spoken by Jesus 2,000 year ago. Wrapping up this section on parables we get five parables thrown at us in rapid succession. But they are connected to each other, and to the audience who would have been listening to Jesus speak, as they were facing very sharp and difficult times as the opposition to Jesus and his movement was growing.
These are parables about power and growth, about the precious value of the Gospel and the Kingdom of God it proclaims. This was a message of hope and worth to the people following Jesus who had given up everything in his name, and for others who were wondering if it would be worth for them to do the same.

The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed  the first parable in Matthew 13 begins … Being agricultural people, they would have been familiar with the size of a mustard seed. For most of us, me included, mustard is that stuff you get in the yellow French’s bottle on the grocery store shelf. But the people listening to Jesus would have been familiar with both the seed and its tree, and how how remarkable it is that such a tiny seed contains all the information, all the life necessary, to grow into a tree large enough for birds to nest in.

Seriously, how does is all that mustard tree-buildin' information packed inside there? And why is it so delicious on a hotdog?

Seriously, how is all that mustard tree-buildin’ information packed inside there? And why is it so delicious on a hotdog?

The kingdom of heaven is like yeast – or leaven – all it took was a little bit of fermented material mixed in to change the entire makeup of a huge amount of dough. For most of us, bread is that stuff wrapped in plastic we pick up off the shelf at the grocery store, like the mustard. But for the people listening to Jesus, they would have been very familiar with the process of baking bread, and that three measures here meant enough to feed an entire banquet.
We can take a couple of things from these two parables: The Gospel is powerful. It is the Living Word of God contained within a simple message – but this simple story holds within it the information, the power that can change the world. The second thing we learn from these parables is that once God sets the growth of his Kingdom in motion, there is nothing anyone can do stop it. Nothing. The power of God is evident in his ability to choose something seemingly small and weak and to grow it into something massive by his own will. There are those who will try to grow their own kingdoms on this earth, but they will all eventually fail. God is the only true Creator, with the only real ability to resurrect, and his Kingdom is everlasting.
The mustard seed parable and God growing it into a tree that nests birds touches on a prophecy the prophet tells as recorded in Ezekiel 31. God had allowed the nation of Assyria to grow like a huge tree that the birds nested in, more glorious than any other trees, but it had become proud of itself and forgotten God, and so he cut it down, and sent it to its death. And in a great expression of his power tinged with humor, God points out that now his birds are standing on the once mighty tree’s fallen trunk, and his creatures are crawling around on its fallen branches. Nothing can grow so great that it outgrows the Creator – and God will even make use of the failure of the proud. The sound of this tree’s fall terrified the nations. And God goes on to tell Ezekiel that this same fate will happen to the Pharaoh of Egypt, who has been acting out evil against God’s people.
The memory of those events nearly 80 years ago in WWII have come rushing forward over the last few weeks as an extremist group taking hold in Syria and Iraq has begun a campaign to persecute Christians. And in an eerily familiar experience, they have started painting a symbol on the walls of Christian homes in the northeastern Iraq capital of Mosul in order to mark them for persecution – they are painting the Arabic letter “N”, the first letter of their term for Christians, “Nasrani,” taken from the word Nazarene, for those who follow Jesus of Nazareth. Nasrani. The Jesus Followers. Churches have been desecrated and shrines sacred to both Christians AND Muslims both have been blown up. Everyone living in the city of Mosul has been terrorized, and Christians have been robbed of all they have, and have been told to leave or convert, or they will be put to the sword. Read more about this here.

The homes of Christians in Mosul, Iraq marked by violent extremists with the letter N, for the term "Nasrani," from Jesus the Nazarene - Followers of Jesus. Christians were forced to leave the their homes under threat of death.

The homes of Christians in Mosul, Iraq marked by violent extremists with the letter N, for the term “Nasrani,” from Jesus the Nazarene – Followers of Jesus. Christians were forced to leave the their homes under threat of death.

The Arabic letter "N," the symbol being adopted around the world and on the Internet to support persecuted Christians. Many Muslims have adopted this symbol in their protests as a mark of support for Christians in their neighborhoods around the world.

The Arabic letter “N,” the symbol being adopted around the world and on the Internet to support persecuted Christians. Many Muslims have adopted this symbol in their protests as a mark of support for Christians in their neighborhoods around the world.

It might seem like all is lost, for those Christians in Mosul. But God has them in his special care – as Jesus is quoted in several places in Scripture, “those who lose their life for my sake and for the sake of the Gospel will save it.”
We are half a world away, and that kind of test of faith seems very foreign – thankfully – to us here in America. Yet we are connected to these Christians because as fellow followers of Jesus, we are their brothers and sisters. They are our family. At the end of our reading in Matthew, after he’s finished telling the parables, Jesus talks to the disciples and asks them, “Have you understood?” “Yes,” they answer. And his response is to give them one more parable. “The scribes trained for the Kingdom of heaven are like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.”

Jesus is telling the disciples that every person who is has heard and understands his message, all those who are trained to spread the Gospel, everyone who is taught to tell the Jesus story, is standing on the rich foundation of the long history of the people of God, in partnership with the new Gospel of Jesus Christ. This is what gave the disciples hope in a time of rising conflict, when they were facing persecution, and even death. The same God who guided and lived in covenant with his people from the beginning, and in Jesus’ time, is continuing to work out his Kingdom among us here today.
Woe to any person or any movement who believes that they and their symbols can grow bigger than God. And the same to any of us Jesus Followers who don’t understand how much strength there is in the Gospel message we have been given, or if we think that there is anything – ANYTHING – that can stop the power of God to grow his kingdom.

Mosul Christians praying. For the first time in 1,600 years of history, there is currently no official Christian Masses being said in Mosul. But God's Kingdom cannot be devoured. Scroll on...

Mosul Christians praying. For the first time in 1,600 years of history, there is currently no official Christian Masses being said in Mosul. But God’s Kingdom cannot be devoured. Scroll on…

In one of many such gathers documented, Muslims gather with Christians to support their freedom to practice their religion in Mosul.

In one of many such gatherings documented, Muslims gather with Christians to support their freedom to practice Christianity in Mosul.

Nothing can stop the growth of God's Kingdom, lived out by the people of the "N."

Nothing can stop the growth of God’s Kingdom, lived out by the people of the “N.”

The Bad Seed (Spoiler: God Wins)

Sermon on July 20, 2014 at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Woodville, Texas:

In the late 1950s the “Bad Seed” was one of the most famous scary movies of its time, and it has become a classic. Based on a book and play about a child who seemed to be a sweet little girl with pigtails and ribbons who was from a nice family, but in reality she was a serial killer from a scary family. That phrase, the “bad seed” entered popular culture as an expression to describe someone who was trouble, an evil person mixed in and growing the-bad-seed-posteralong with the good seeds, but who wasn’t going to produce anything you would ever want. One of the creepiest things about that movie was during the ending credits, a voice came on and could be heard asking moviegoers as they left not to reveal the surprise ending to folks who hadn’t see the movie yet.
We’re still making our way through the rows of planting parables. Last week we heard about the Parable of the Sower and the different kinds of ground where Jesus was planting the Gospel seed. Today we have the Parable of the Weeds growing among the wheat. Jesus gives us another example to help us understand his kingdom and how it works: The Kingdom is like a landowner who plants good seed for wheat, but weeds are discovered growing with the wheat revealing that an enemy has sneaked in and mixed bad seed in with the good seed. The master’s servants wanted to go pull the weeds out, but the master won’t let him. He points out that the act of pulling the invasive plants will damage the good crop. The weed Jesus uses as an example is a grass that grew all over Israel, called darnell. Darnell would tangle its roots around the roots of the good plants, making it impossible to remove without damaging the wheat. And it was hard to separate them because darnell mimicked wheat – when they first start growing together, it was really difficult to tell them apart in the field. Darnell starts out wheattares1looking just like wheat, until it comes to harvest time, when the darnell puts out a lightweight seed head that stands straight up. Harvest time is when you can really tell the difference between the darnell and the wheat, because the wheat produces a much more robust and ripened seed head full of grain that is noticeably heavier and bent over with the weight of its fruit.
The second reason the landowner wouldn’t let his servants pull out the darnell was because it wasn’t their job. That was the work reserved for the reapers, the professional harvesters who would know how to collect and separate the darnell and the wheat properly for a good harvest.
Two more planting parables go by before Jesus’ disciples who are trying to absorb all this come to him and ask, Ok, what the heck’s up with this Parable of the Weeds? Jesus quite plainly describes it for them: he is the sower, the field is the world. In the world there is good and evil, and evil is caused by the devil; the harvest is the end of this world as we experience it now, when Jesus will send his angels to do the job he had given to them – weeding out all the sin and those who are evil, and casting them out, leaving the good and righteous resurrected in God’s perfected Creation – which will be so glorious to see that the people in it are described by Jesus as “shining like the sun.”
Our nice agricultural series seems to have taken a turn to the dark side, suddenly, we’re in a biblical version of The Bad Seed. Things that are sweetness and light, the children of God and God’s work, are all mixed around and tangled up with evil brought about by the devil’s work. We get a somewhat frightening vision of the end times, of angels going about the grim side of angelic work – sorting out the evil from the good, and shucking out the evil to be consumed in God’s fire.

This is the point that I'm hiding behind my popcorn.

I’m 43, and this is pretty much what I still look like when watching scary parts of movies. Everyone knows you’re safer behind the popcorn.

This would be right about the time in the movie that I’d be hiding behind my popcorn, because I’ve discovered over that years that during a scary movie, you’re much safer if you watch the bad scenes from between your fingers.
But this is not a movie. This is Jesus using a story to tell his disciples, and us, that for those who choose to follow him, and who practice Christianity as his Church, will not have it easy. This parable is an acknowledgement that as we go about our work for God in this world, we will encounter evil. One of the hardest questions we may struggle with, and certainly unbelievers ask and use as an excuse to reject God – is, why would a loving God allow bad things to happen?
This is not heaven, this world is not yet the full and perfected Creation. Jesus in his incarnation and resurrection began the work of the Kingdom of God, and is continuing that work in us every day until he comes back to complete it. Until that time, until our resurrection, we are transformed souls that belong to God, yet we live in bodies that age, in a world where things go wrong, in a place where sin exists, and evil happens. Until Jesus returns to separate out evil from God’s creation, we will continue to be mixed up, the good seed and the bad. We struggled with that reality again this week as the world witnessed the tragedy of nearly 300 violent deaths on a Malaysian airliner, and the war and conflict that continues to surround that tragedy, may they rest in peace. As Jesus told his disciples then, and as we hear his words today, we co-exist with evil, and it will continue to be with us until the end of the age. This is why his Gospel of love and reconciliation is So. Desperately. Needed.

This is also a warning not to overstep our bounds as Christians. We are to love the Lord our God with everything we are, and to love our neighbors as ourselves. We are to work for righteousness and justice, and to be godly in our life and work, holding each other accountable in love to those standards.But following in the steps of Jesus can become a slippery slope if we give in to evil preying on our sinful, prideful nature, when we forget ourselves and our mission, and slip across the line from justice into judgment – and we must be careful because judgment is God’s territory, not ours. Jesus is very clear in describing his parable to the disciples – he will decide what is righteous and unrighteous, and he will assign the work of pulling the weeds to his angels, not to the children of God.
When you think about it, there is a lot of mercy in that. Primarily because God relieves us of the burden of deciding who are his children and who have turned away from him, and he gives us freedom by assigning us a mission to love everybody equally in his Name, and to let him worry about the rest. There is also mercy here because while we Christians belong to God, we remain a part of this sinful world, and while we may be quick to judge others, we are not God, we do not know the mind of God, and we might get it wrong. And unfortunately, we all have plenty of experience adding to the “causes of sin” that Jesus describes the angels removing like weeds, in addition to those evil-doers. While we know we are children of God sanctified to him through the sacrifice of Jesus – we have not yet become fully who God originally created us to be. We still look forward to that great Day when Jesus will fully reveal his kingdom.
Until that time, we still live in a broken world, and we will continue to wrestle with our own sin. Scripture describes that battle within us in several places, Matthew included – in Chapter 18 Jesus warns us that there will be temptations growing within us, bad seed that we will have to identify and cut out like the darnell weed, because at times we are at risk through our own behavior of becoming a stumbling block to the Gospel work of our brothers and sisters in the faith. In Matthew 18 even one of Jesus’ closest friends, Peter,

Everyone knows you're safer in a scary movie if you hide behind your hands.

Everyone knows you’re also safer in a scary movie if you hide behind your hands. Photo: SparkLife

becomes a stumbling block to him, and Jesus calls out the evil in him, saying “get behind me Satan!” That makes me want to hide behind my hands again, worrying about what God thinks of me when I mess up. But what gives us courage and hope is that Jesus did not condemn Peter for that slip of faith – in fact, he went on to use Peter and the other disciples to found and grow his Church. So we can be confident as Christians not to be too quick to judge others, or ourselves. God is our judge, and in his mercy, he continues to love us, forgive us and reconcile us to himself – Jesus said in John 10 that he has given us eternal life and no one will snatch us out of his hand. In our theology we believe salvation is not just one single event in time, but it is an ongoing process – beginning when we become a Christian at our Baptism, continuing throughout our life until we stand before Jesus in our resurrected bodies.


No surprise plot twist at the end - Jesus wins.

No surprise plot twist at the end – Jesus wins.

That is why no matter what evil we encounter in the world, even within ourselves, no matter how thick the weeds get, we don’t have to hide our eyes or even to be scared, because there is no surprise ending – we know how this all ends – God wins. God wins! And that’s why we can say with confidence, I have been saved, I am being saved, and I will be saved. Amen.


No Other Reason to Be An Episcopalian

An important facet of building a good and healthy relationship between the bi-vocational clergy and congregation is for clergy to spend time in reflection. Not just the kind where we priests look at ourselves and think about who we are and what the heck we’re doing. The kind of reflecting I’m talking about is when we hold a mirror up to our congregation, showing them who they are. Perhaps that’s the work of any clergy, paid or non-stipendiary, but in the volunteer, bi-vocational arena where I serve, it is good for a priest to take time early in the relationship with the congregation to say, “Hey, listen to this: This is what I see.” And if all – or even most – of life in your congregation is going well, then by all means, get cracking on telling the congregation about it. They need to hear it.

When you see your congregation doing some great Kingdom work and it touches your heart, tell them. When a visitor says something really great about their experience with your people, find a way to share that feedback. Our job as clergy, and especially as bi-vocational clergy, is not only to provide the Sacraments, to make hospital visits and to preside at Bishop’s Committee meetings. Our calling is to build up the Body of Christ, through invitation and evangelism, certainly, through the rough waters of accountability and being a non-anxious presence in crisis, but also through encouragement of healthy growth behavior, and tending to the hunger in each person to know that the Church supports and believes in them.

It’s a delicate catwalk along which to trace our steps, but clergy must walk that thin line between representing a Church that is independent of the control of individual authorities, while still having the strength and confidence to inhabit the Church’s vulnerable spaces needing people’s gifts. These are God’s people, those whom God’s priests serve, and on behalf of whom we make sacrifices – before God, and from our lives and families. The people need us as much as we need them. Don’t be afraid to tell them what you see.

What follows is my sermon delivered July 13, 2014 to my small congregation of 35 at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Woodville, on the Parable of the Sower, and what a recent harvest looked like from the priest’s point of view:

“If there were no other reason to be an Episcopalian, then these people would be the reason to be one.”

That was one of the more memorable things I heard someone say yesterday in the Parish Hall at Bob’s 90th birthday party – besides all the Bob and Betty quotes that Woodie told, of course.

“If there were no other reason to be an Episcopalian, then these people would be the reason to be one.” That was an interesting thing for a visitor to say to the priest – at first, a part of me wanted to protest – Obviously, we hadn’t planted enough seed here with this person for our Episcopal awesomeness to take root and grow! I was thinking, wait a minute, there are a LOT of really fantastic reasons to be an Episcopalian, and I just can’t let this person leave until they know all about those wonderful things. But when I thought it over, I realized – What they said really does say something wonderful about our church, doesn’t it? “If there were no other reason to be an Episcopalian, than these people would be the reason to be one.”

Today’s Gospel parable in Matthew starts out a little unexpectedly compared to some parables. It doesn’t start, “The Kingdom of Heaven is like a guy who got some seeds….” It just starts, with “Listen!” And then, we dive right into the story of the Sower. This is the story of a guy who’s seemingly haphazardly planting – throwing seeds all over: on a walking path, on some rocky ground, right in the middle of some weeds, and finally he manages to get some to land on the good ground. This is a story about a guy who’s planting seeds, but it’s also Jesus telling the story of his ministry, and how it’s been going in getting the Gospel message out there. This is also our story – the story about our work to share the Gospel with the world, and the challenges we face both in planting a good Gospel crop in ourselves, and in people out there. This is the story of the Word of the Kingdom of God. The story follows where word goes, and what happens to it in those different places, how the Word is treated, how it is received and what it looks like when it’s enacted.

We call the Bible the Word of God. It’s not just words sitting on a page. When the Gospel is read out loud into the context of the Body of Christ gathered to worship the Father, this Word becomes the living breath of God, delivered into our hearts by the Holy Spirit. Through it, across 2,000 years of human history lived inside the Christian story, Jesus calls to us, “Listen! Listen with the ear of your heart. Hear my Word, and understand. Get excited, yes! But be patient and be diligent.” Jesus asks us to walk along beside him, the Sower, and with the Holy Spirit as it is planted deep into our heart, where it will take root and grow, and where it yields a harvest known and recognized in the physical presence of the Gospel, when the Word becomes flesh and walks around in us. Like the Sower and his seed, Jesus scatters his love everywhere. His Word is all about hope, and no matter our emotional or spiritual condition, he has hope that we will love and serve him, and that his Word will stay with us, and grow, and feed others.

“If there were no other reason to be an Episcopalian, than these people would be a reason to be one.”

Jesus is known as the Word – the Logos of God. Jesus as the Word is the Incarnation of God who enacts his mercy and is the embodiment of God’s creative force in the Universe. In John 1:1 and 14 Jesus is described as co-eternal with God. The Incarnation of the Creator. “In the Beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…all things came into being through him … and the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have SEEN his glory.”

The people living contemporary to Jesus, the crowd gathered around him that day, and his Disciples, they had encountered the Word walking around with them. It was a different encounter than re-telling the stories being passed around about who Jesus was, and what he was doing; different than listening to Prophecies being heard read in the Synagogues – Jesus has moved beyond the story and the page and is God, walking among them. In Jesus, the Word, the Logos, was so powerful with the creative energy of the God that it was no longer just a story or a written word – that the Word was now an experience. The Word was something to be encountered. In Jesus, the content of the Gospel message and the visceral, physical-emotional-spiritual encounter of experiencing him had become inseparable. The Word had become flesh, and was living among them.

As followers of Jesus, as his Church of people who are inhabited by the Holy Spirit, that same story lives right here among us. We have an encounter with the living Word of God in Holy Scripture, and in Holy Communion. And each week, right here, we are refreshed and renewed and sent out again as Jesus says, “Listen! Listen to my Word, and understand, and GO and bear fruit.” As we go out from here and into the world each week, when what we allow people to encounter in us becomes inseparable, indistinguishable from the Jesus story they have heard or read about, in that same encounter, WE ARE the Word. In the encounter, they meet Jesus in us. We are their experience of Christianity, and that’s when we teach them what being an Episcopalian means. That’s when his message is our life, and our life is his message.

“If there were no other reason to be an Episcopalian, than these people would be a reason to be one.”

The visitor who said that to me wasn’t insulting the Episcopal Church’s theology, or our great intellectual balance of belief and reason. They weren’t knocking our beautiful liturgy or our love of old-age, time-honored traditional spiritual practices. This was a visitor who didn’t know much about what being Episcopal is, or what that’s supposed to mean as far as how we worship, or the depths of our theology. This was a visitor who came to an event at St. Paul’s and experienced an encounter with Jesus.

This is a person who spent time around you, and who had an encounter with the Word that is in YOU. This visitor stepped into the Jesus story as it is lived by this congregation. Our theology, our liturgy, our beautiful hymnody and spiritual practices – those are precious gifts from God to his Church. Believe me, I love them, dearly. But the FIRST gift we are called to share is Jesus – to be the encounter of the Word for every person we meet. And then, as members of God’s Church, I hope you will go on to say, “I’m from St. Paul’s and if you’ll come be a part of us, I would consider that the best reason to be an Episcopalian!” Amen.

The Bi-Vocational Vision: Beginning Congregational Development and a New Priest’s First Sermon

When you’re a bi-vocational priest serving a small congregation, beginning to write a vision for congregational development takes a different approach then that of a stipendiary rector in a fully-funded large parish. In a bi-vocational deployment, there’s a high likelihood you’ll be partnered with a congregation that doesn’t have the advantage of historically consistent clergy leadership to build on. Some small churches go years without any regular clergy of their own. An absence of clergy leadership contributes to a lack of clear mission vision. Combined with the threat – real or imagined – of economic instability looming like wolves at the door, it is understandable why a small church’s energy gets funneled out of mission mode and into survival mode.

The sudden arrival of a bi-vocational clergy person can rock the already drifting boat. For the first several months, it can be a bit of a wild ride at times, as everyone – clergy included – comes to terms with a leadership shift which likely includes a redistribution of duties, worship changes and newly defined community relationships. The wise new clergy never makes too many changes at the beginning, least the boat rock so hard it turns over. But as an even wiser clergy friend of mine said, “Even if you don’t change anything, YOU ARE change.” Point well-taken.

This past Sunday, June 29, I was priested by Bishop Jeff Fisher as I knelt on the floor at the center of the worship space in my small East Texas congregation, St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, surrounded by a heartfelt group of fellow priests, all laying their hands on me, invoking the Holy Spirit and blessing my new priestly ministry. I was off to a great start, and I have to say that I have the good bi-vocational fortune to be leading a group of people who both enjoy serving the Lord and who are willing to try some new things with me, and that is primary to bi-vocational success. My congregation is blessed with dedicated members who have gifts for leadership grounded in a depth of experience that is the special charism of a congregation made up of mostly retirees. They are aware of their need for growth, and that is the secondary piece to a bi-vocational congregation’s success. The other pieces we’re going to discover along the way.

What follows is my first sermon as a priest, given Sunday, July 6, 2014, after spending nearly a year getting to know them as a deacon and their head of congregation. It is my first attempt at congregational development, and addresses an identity concern particular to the needs of bi-vocational congregations:

Well, what a week huh? Today I want to share some things that are on my heart, and begin to cast a vision for our new ministry together as priest and congregation. It’s said that when you are ordained, you go through an ontological change – a change in who you are, your whole being becomes something different. I kept running into situations this last week where I had to remind myself that I wasn’t the same any more – at one point I found myself sitting in the church office with my home Communion box trying to figure out the logistics of finding a priest to consecrate the elements for me. Then I remembered, “Oh yeah – I’m a priest!” That wasn’t just me making a mental adjustment – This kind of change required a whole lot more than merely adjusting, than just making a little room in my thinking. This ontological change meant me doing the work of accepting way down deep inside me who I now am – and beginning to live into who I have become. This is who I am – I’m a priest.

This is the first time I’ve stood at the St. Paul’s pulpit wearing a priest’s stole. Up until now, I’ve worn a deacon’s stole. The deacon’s calling is to represent Christ as Servant, represented by their stoles being tied to the side. The priest’s stole is worn with both sides in place and represents the priest taking on the yoke of Christ, serving like Jesus as Shepherd of the flock. A priest’s role in the church community is to gather and guide and protect the Body of Christ and to provide the Sacraments of his Church. But there’s a saying among priests that one is always also a deacon, because you were first made a deacon. By that reasoning, I am, and most of us here today are, first and foremost the Baptized. Before your confirmation, before any of us were married or ordained, or entered into any other sacramental covenant, you were baptized – you experienced the ontological change that happens at baptism, when something about your whole being changed. You were filled with the Holy Spirit and made one with God through his Savior, Jesus. And because that happened, you wear the symbol of the cross of Jesus Christ, the yoke that can never be removed – at your baptism you were marked as Christ’s own forever. Whether you were baptized into the Episcopal Church, or you were, like me, baptized into another Christian denomination, it is the same – we are at the moment of our Baptism filled with the Holy Spirit and made members in this Body, forever gifted to receive the yoke of the ministry of the Gospel. Forever called to love the Lord our God with everything we are, and to love everyone around us like they are us.

This symbolism of the yoke is powerful – a yoke is what binds one animal to another so that they both can pull together to get something done. Throughout biblical history yokes have also represented slavery, or a burden to be escaped. But here in today’s Gospel reading, Jesus provides another image of the yoke. When you yoke two animals together, the wise farmer will partner a more experienced animal with the one who is new to the yoke, so the older one can teach the younger, and guide them in the work they share. Jesus evokes this when he says “learn from me – you who are weary, and heavy-laden, take my yoke upon you, for my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” What comfort God offers us here! That when we feel the weight of the world on our shoulders, Jesus comes alongside us, gently and humbly, and invites us into relationship with him, teaching us to experience the world in a whole new way through him.

If you have not been baptized, you are invited to be. You are welcome, and you are loved, and we want you to be a part of this amazing family we call the Body of Christ. We want you to be a part of this portion of God’s Kingdom that we have been given to care for known as St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. This is the Gospel message to take to your neighbor. This is the Good News to take to the person you run into when the Holy Spirit deep down inside you won’t leave you alone, but keeps calling to you to do something for them, or to say some words of God’s grace to them.

Looking back over the last week, I think there was a tie for the most popular question folks asked me leading up to and including the ordination. It was a pretty even heat between, “Are you nervous?” and “How you holdin’ up?” But I noticed something, whenever that happened, when one of you asked those questions, you would always follow the question up with something else, like humor, or reassurance. I don’t think any of you asked me those questions because you didn’t care, or because you were just morbidly curious how I was doing. I believe you asked me those questions because you knew it was a challenging and stressful time, and you were ready to offer me real and practical comfort and real encouragement. I didn’t hear anything impractical or fake like, “It’s going to be perfect.” Or “Nothing will ever go wrong.” I heard you saying things like, “It’s ok, we’ve going to take care of you,” and “This is going to be so wonderful – we are so excited!” There were so many of you who despite doing your own hard work and preparation, took the time to stop and really care for me, and my family. And it wasn’t just me – you cared for each other. I saw it happening, several times. It may have seemed for a little bit like the world was threatening to rotate around this one event, but the truth is that life and ministry and the mission field was still going on all around us, and I know that several of you were right in the middle of that holy work. You loved on John and Betty Sisson, you visited Kay, encouraged Jim and Glenda, and BW and Wayne, you loved on Leon, you sent Keith letters at Camp, you supported each other in countless ways, and you invited the community to be a part of our mission and our worship.

Over and over, you wore the yoke of Christ in private and in public. There may have been times when it felt like that yoke weighed more than you could bear – You may have thought, Lord, do I HAVE to be Jesus to that person today? Because I don’t think I have the strength to do it. But Jesus tells us not to worry about it – because he’s got this. His burden is easy, and his yoke is light. When we take on the new life in Jesus Christ, when we wear the yoke of God, we don’t pull the weight ourselves. We first have to show up – to offer ourselves in his name, and in that beautiful paradox of the Gospel, our freedom happens when we give ourselves up to serving God. It’s not about making an adjustment to our former life – wearing the yoke of Jesus is about accepting that something deep down inside you has changed – you’re not adjusting, you have a new identity, and you are beginning to live into that new identity. You are a Christian.

One of the dearest things I remember hearing in this precious time around my ordination has been from Bob Payne. Bob and Betty are quiet folks, but they love and serve the Lord and his Church with everything they are. They don’t just make adjustments. That’s who they are. They are faithful.
A few weeks ago, I was talking with Bob in the Parish Hall on what was my last Sunday before coming back here for ordination. He said, “Bye, I’ll see you next Sunday,” and I said, “No, I won’t be there for the next couple of weeks. I’ll see you on Ordination Sunday.” Without missing a beat, he said, “We’ll be here waiting for you, and we’ll welcome you with open arms.”

That crystallized for me what the heart of this church is. It’s said that every congregation has a personality, has a general character that is made up of the combined charism of its people. A church’s personality is brought to life by weaving together for a shared purpose the different gifts and spirituality of its members. Since the first moment I found out I would be assigned to St. Paul’s, and would one day become your priest, I have looked forward to finding out what your character is.
You’ve weathered a lot of changes over the years, and a fair amount of upheaval, and as a congregation, you have endured and come through together strong. You’ve endured a lot of time without being in regular relationship with a priest you could call your own. In fact, St. Paul’s has spent so much time in that place of managing inconsistency, that you started calling yourselves, tongue-in-cheek, the Church of the Holy Adjustment.

I don’t believe that is your real character. I don’t believe that is who you really are. That may have been who this church used to be – that may have been who you had to be at times to survive. But I don’t believe this is now who you are. And I know it’s not what you are called by God to be. Since last October, my knowing of you is that you are the people who love others fiercely for Jesus, the people who come together and give everything you can to help someone in a crisis. You dig deep, emotionally, spiritually, and materially, into who you really are as Christians. Over these last several months, and in these last weeks especially, you have shown me that you can get some serious Kingdom work done! With God’s help, you make and execute plans, you face challenges head on, you work with everyone in this community, and you have a lot of fun along the way. There’s a LOT of joy here. You are the people of the Jesus Welcome – you are St. Paul’s!

Our patron saint is St. Paul, and last Sunday was the Feast of St. Peter and St. Paul. Paul is really unique, because he has two feast days. We are named after a man who gave his life believing that we are the saints of God by God’s own calling, and by the blood of Jesus we are gifted by the Holy Spirit to serve our Creator with a CLEAR and STEADY vision. We are called to respond with the faith of those who know that whatever comes, whatever we face – we have the cross of Christ to guide us and we have the gifts of the Spirit to use in every kind of work – every situation, every tragedy, every victory, every opportunity to live our congregation’s mission to be a light of Christ to the world. Paul knew he couldn’t be defined by what was going wrong, nor defined by whether he himself had any ability to make it all come out ok. Paul knew that from an outside perspective, heck even from an inside the church perspective, he knew that things were going to wrong. God didn’t send me because I’m clever in how I talk, he said. But to those who are called, Christ is our power, he is our wisdom. In him, everything is made ok, whether the worlds sees it that way or not.
My friends, no matter what we do, not matter how hard we try, there will always be a need to make adjustments. That is not unique to us. That is life in every Christian community. And like Matthew tells us today in our reading that even when we do things right, there are those who will accuse us, and who will misunderstand our intentions. But it is the work of our prayers, and the work of our testimony and the work of our hands that will teach people what the Jesus Welcome is. So when things don’t go like we planned them, don’t worry – we are St. Paul’s. God’s got this.

The Gospel of Christ wasn’t given to us because we understand it all, or because we have it all together and we know exactly what we are doing – it was given to us because God loves us, he cherishes us, and wants us to live in his grace, and to offer that grace to everyone.

The next feast day for St. Paul’s is on January 25, right around the time we will be having our next annual meeting when we look back at where we’ve been, and talk about where we are going. That day celebrates the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul – when the man who was Saul experiences an epiphany from God, and understands his new calling to serve God in a very active and vibrant ministry to those that used to know him in an entirely different way. Paul discovered his true character formed in picking up and wearing the yoke of God through a really dramatic conversion experience. Some of us come to God in a dramatic moment – for some of us, it’s a quieter experience. Both are ontological changes – both redefine who we are.

This is not the Church of the Holy Adjustment. That is not who we are. St. Paul’s is a church built on the solid foundation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We may not have a deacon any longer at St. Paul’s, but I’m always going to have that deacon side of me, and together we are always going to be called to meet Jesus in those places in this community where the world would rather not look – the darkness where the Light of Jesus that is in us is really needed. And when things happen that we don’t expect, we’re not going to adjust – we’re going to trust. Because God’s got this.

My brothers and sisters, we are who God has made us to be – every morning that you wake up, before you even get out of bed, pick up the yoke of Christ and put firmly around your shoulders, then go out into the world and love everyone, and welcome them with open arms. We are Christians. We are Episcopalians. This is our character. This is who we are. We are St. Paul’s.

Texas Independence and the Transfiguration of Jesus

So what exactly do Texas Independence Day and the Transfiguration of Jesus have to do with each other?

My daughter, pointing out our ancestor's name on the list of signers of the Texas Declaration of Independence.

My daughter, pointing out our ancestor’s name on the list of signers of the Texas Declaration of Independence.

On this day we are observing Transfiguration Sunday. Also on this day, March 2, in 1836, 178 years ago, a group of convention delegates gathered at Washington-on-the-Brazos to sign the Texas Declaration of Independence. One of those delegates who signed the declaration was my Uncle Elijah Stapp. My great-great-great-great-great uncle, actually. A few years ago, my father, my husband and I took the kids to Washington-on-the-Brazos State Park. We toured the museum and grounds, took in a stage show and made a point of hunting for Elijah in group portraits, and in the list of signer’s names on the monument outside.

One of the more interesting parts of our visit was seeing people in period dress re-enacting pioneer life in the 1830s at an outdoor campsite. My favorite was the guy who portrayed Sam Houston – you know, the guy that huge city in Texas is named after? That’s the one. I’d first seen him leaning against a wall inside the museum, and confess I got a bit giggly with excitement. I’m not sure if there’s a Sam Houston fandom, but I might be the de facto fan club president. Years ago, I started my college career at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, and several of my friends graduated from Sam, as SHSU students called it. My best friend in college (now my kids’ godmother) was studying to be an archivist, and she and I spent a lot of time wandering around the Sam Houston museum on campus. My husband and I were actually engaged right on the museum grounds. So that day visiting Washington-on-the-Brazos with my kids, seeing Sam Houston in person was awesome. Like the original, reported   to

He wasn't really this big - he just acted like it. This is his statue at Huntsville, Texas.

He wasn’t really this big – he just acted like it. This is his statue at Huntsville, Texas.

be about six-feet-six-inches tall, this guy was imposing, with great-big mutton chop sideburns. He was the well-dressed version of Sam Houston, in a cutaway Southern gentleman’s coat and shiny, knee-high leather riding boots. The actor really got into the part, striding about confidently on his long legs. He was what you would picture a larger-than-life character from the pages of Texas history would be like. He WAS Sam Houston.

 Later, while touring the grounds, we spotted Sam Houston walking across the lawn. “Look kids! There goes Sam Houston!,” I said excitedly, my outstretched arm tracking his trajectory. “Look, he’s walking into the parking lot…he’s looking for something. ….He’s – getting in his Nissan Sentra and driving away. Um. Bye Sam Houston.” My pointed arm turned into a wave at his departing vehicle. Talk about bursting my bubble. Of course, the kids didn’t seem to be bothered by it at all – it was really me who was reacting like Santa Claus had pulled off his beard in front of my kids.

This last Sunday in the season of Epiphany we are observing a transformation that doesn’t disappoint – Transfiguration Sunday. Christ’s physical revelation of himself as the Son of God, described in Matthew 17. There’s a sense of completeness as we finish Epiphany as we began it all those weeks ago at Christmas with the first incarnational revelation, God revealing that he has become flesh and blood in the Baby Jesus. And today, we end Epiphany with the Transfiguration, the flesh and blood man revealing that he is, in fact, also God. For Peter, it’s just a few days after he acknowledges that the One he is following is the Messiah, the Son of God. Peter is the rock on which Jesus plans to build his Church. Yet Peter, James, and John are struggling to accept the news that together with Christ, they are journeying into Jerusalem and toward his sacrificial death, and resurrection. We’ve all lost friends, but I can’t imagine how hard it is to ponder losing the one you’ve give up everything to follow, who is your hope for the salvation of your people.

Jesus takes Peter and James and John up the mountain with him, and before their eyes, he is transformed. His face shines like the sun, his clothes are radiant white. And if that weren’t enough, appearing with him are two pillars of the Hebrew faith, Moses and Elijah (the original one, not my uncle). Suddenly Christ’s disciples see in him a real, tangible vision of who he really is – God’s son, the fulfillment of both the law and the prophets.

Transfiguration, abstract. Lewis Bowman.

Transfiguration, abstract.
Lewis Bowman.

And Peter, the Rock, the Foundation, has a predictable reaction. He suddenly wants to start building right there and then. This is great, Lord, to be here, he says. We’ll build three places for you, Elijah and Moses. You’ll stay in them here awhile and….God cuts him off. While Peter is still talking, God interrupts and makes his pronouncement over Jesus, the son with whom he is well pleased, calling Peter to stop building and to start listening. God demands Peter acknowledge the moment happening before him, the moment of God revealing himself. Understandably, they are terrified and fall on their faces. The next sensation they experience is Jesus, his hand touching them, his words gently reassuring them to get up and not be afraid. It’s not like they’ve been through much – seeing God’s glory, hearing his voice, and all. “Oh, and don’t tell anyone about this until later,” Jesus says, as they’re walking down the mountain. That may seem less than compassionate for their fears, even harsh. But in today’s reading from 2 Peter, we discover the wisdom in Jesus’ response. Jesus is preparing his disciples for the work ahead. They need time to process their growing understanding of who he is, and they will need these epiphanies as anchors to hold them through the rough times, to hold up against their experiences in both the glory and the dark days of Christ’s ministry to come. They are witnesses to the fact that the Gospel is not a myth – because they have seen it with their own eyes.

Get started slowing down for Lent.

Get started slowing down for Lent.

As we get ready to enter Lent this week, it’s time to slow down. To look at how we encounter the revelation of God’s glory in our life and ministry, particularly when it comes to suffering. This Lent, as we walk with Jesus through Jerusalem and toward his cross, we understand again how he suffered for us, and how we are witnesses to the fact that he is with us in our suffering.

 Because of this epiphany – understanding God’s sacrificial love for us – we are a people whose particular ministry can include the ability to sit with those who are suffering in a way nobody else can. People who are dying, who are ill or who have lost dear loved ones want a safe place to talk about it. We can be that safe place. Fear of what to say to the grieving is what keeps us from doing ministry. It’s what keeps us from making a hospital or nursing home visit, or picking up the phone, or going to the house where somebody’s lost a loved one. But the good news is that we don’t have to know what to say: Instead of the typical response of shutting up the grieving with “Everything’s going to be ok,” or telling a joke or whatever we think we have to say instead of listening, we can stop building excuses and instead be quiet enough to listen for what nobody else will let them say: I’m scared. I don’t want to die. I don’t know how to live without my child.

The reason we can do that is because we don’t serve a myth. We serve a God who offers us freedom and independence from sin in Jesus Christ. We serve a God who reveals himself in the midst of suffering. And because of this, we are witnesses who can tell the firsthand story of his glory, revealed in shining moments, or in a gentle touch on our shoulder, saying, “Get up. Don’t be afraid.”

The Coach’s Perspective

Lots of different kinds of people need Jesus, and they need him in lots of different ways. That thought remains with me as the conversation warms up among Episcopalians about our church language, and its inclusive or exclusive nature (read more about it here).

While a city editor at a community newspaper earlier in my bi-vocational career, my work included coaching writers. Frustrated reporters would come to me for help when particularly struggling with a story. Bogged down and writing in circles, they had climbed so deep inside their own experience, they had temporarily lost contact with the one ability every good news writer possesses: seeing things from the perspective of the reader. That is to say, writing as if the person reading the story doesn’t know what you know, and hasn’t seen what you have seen – because in reality, chances are they don’t, and they haven’t.

Here’s a technique that usually solved the problem: I’d ask a reporter to imagine they were home at the end of the day, relating to their friend or spouse what they’d witnessed. Very often, the first few words out of their mouth became the lead, the first sentence in a news story. Those initial words were usually the foundation on which they were able to build a stronger, clearer story structure.

It worked because they began to look at telling a story not as artificially rebuilding an experience, but as the evolution of an experience into the ongoing work of figuring out what a certain event means, and its impact on community life, related in terms that have no concern for maintaining social barriers. It works because it’s in our nature to want to communicate in ways we can understand and be understood, an expression of the God who is in us, who desires to know us and to be known. As a writer, if you stay connected to the reader’s perspective, it doesn’t matter whether you use simple or complex language, as long as you remember to take the reader along with you. Hard or easy, no one wants to read a story that makes no effort to address what they care about. We are all different, and we all need Jesus in different ways. The common link is that, differences or not, we all need him.

Differences can be important. It is important for me, as a foreign-born American child of two Caucasian-American parents, to listen and attempt a level of understanding about the impact of shared language on a community which includes various cultures. Before we get to cultural concerns, the Episcopal language discussion begins with an evaluation of churchy terms. Is the room you enter before reaching the worship space a foyer?cab57aa105cf6028fe7c8c6934f01a7c Nave? Vestibule? Lobby? Is it a worship space, Nave, Sanctuary, or just “the church?” After the temporal discussion, we move to the more difficult to put a finger on: How do we talk about what we call mission, without forgetting the very different historical experience of Native Americans and other people around the world, who have suffered at the hands of missionaries? How to integrate that into the different experience of those for whom mission holds important meaning to their historical identity as Christians, sent into the world in the name of Jesus?

It is certainly true that some language is exclusive to some cultures, and must be considered in the wider appeal and sensitivity of the Church. As both a female and a member of the clergy, I certainly appreciate gender-inclusive language in Scripture and liturgy, and have become so accustomed to it in the majority of my Episcopal community work that I feel with some difficulty its absence in other settings, evoking the lack of it in the Scripture and worship of my younger years in a different denomination. I can only imagine the pain of a native culture struggling to feel at home in a Church it cherishes, the same entity historically responsible for some of its cultural wounds. From these discussions unspoken questions emerge: “Whose experience matters more?” “What ground am I called to give up in preserving the dignity of other human beings?” “How do I find a comfortable space in the ground that remains?” “How do we achieve groundlessness?”

We are Episcopalians. Throwing our arms open wide and inviting others to join us is what we do. Gathering to sit at the table with those whom the world shuns is what we do. Kneeling in unity beside those who are different from us, to be fed together from God’s table is what we are called to do. Surely there is room in our broad and creative Church for both those who find beauty and acceptance in simplicity, and those nourished through the dance of complex language. Surely there is common ground for those whose cultural experiences are opposite but whose Savior sacrificed himself to bring all into communion with the Father.

Go Green Hands Collaborative Tree
by Karen Cappello

We are Episcopalians. We are the people of the Middle Way. As I heard Bishop Jeff Fisher say last week when he visited my church at St. Paul’s, Woodville, in the Diocese of Texas, “We are the Church of both-and.” Catholic and Protestant, male and female, struggling and free, we are all one in Christ Jesus.We are all different. And we need Jesus in different ways. But we all need him. Examining the changing experience of our shared language expressions in the Church is fine, as long as we don’t go so far in charting and languishing in our linguistic differences that we forget to approach everything we do from the perspective of the people who need the Gospel story we have to tell. We can focus on our differences, or we can work for unity strengthened by standing together and holding up the world’s needs to our Lord, inviting everyone to be a part of the varied and beautiful ways to experience Jesus.


One Bread, One (Ceramic) Cup


Somewhere in my training for priesthood, a teacher told my class there are three professions that attract people with the biggest egos: acting, journalism, and the clergy. Also being a former journalist, I figure my next stop is either Hollywood or humility training. The professor’s warning jangled in my head at my new church this morning as a broadly smiling member named Lou handed me a shiny coffee cup. “Hey, check out your new mug,” he said. Vaguely remembering hearing a conversation a few weeks before by members planning to restock the supply of St. Paul’s personalized coffee mugs, I looked down, noticing a large Episcopal Church shield covering the side of the mug. “Nice, looks good,” I said. “No, look at the other side,” he said, expectantly. I rolled the cup over in my hand, lines of text coming into view. A welcome, the church name, our Internet site, e-mail address and phone, and, finally, at the bottom in BIG BLUE lettering clear as day, was my name, “Rev. Ashley Cook.”

A couple of nervous reactions dashed through my head. “Oh no, what did you guys do?” I said to him, half-teasing, half-mortified. They had ordered a lot of mugs, he said. A LOT. Soon to finish my studies for priesthood in bi-vocational ministry, I’d only been assigned to the small, rural church in the deep pine forestland of East Texas for four short months. Egotistical is a label and a trait clergy have to guard against, and it probably wouldn’t help in that department if folks thought I’d put my own name on our mugs, I thought.

But then I took a second look – at Lou’s face, not the mug. His warm expression, his nodding approval, his big smile. These were signs of welcome, and I’d almost missed them. These were indications of a congregation ready to share both themselves and their new clergy with the wider community. Ironically, I’d almost let my ego about trying to control other people’s impressions of me overtake the open invitation to build a relationship with my congregation. Lou and his wife Carol, among the most faithful members at St. Paul’s, would shortly be celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary in the service that morning. The mugs were a symbol, I realized, of a congregation in it for the long-haul, stepping forward in faith to offer their part of a commitment to a long-term pastoral relationship. Swallowing my ego, I gripped the cup tightly, suddenly very conscious of its meaning. “Thank you, so much,” I said to Lou.

People are drawn to the Episcopal Church because of its connectedness. We are the people of One Bread, One Cup, as we say of our Communion practice of kneeling together to receive the Body and Blood of Christ, in the form of wafers and a shared cup. We are the Church expressing the transformational love of God, who draws all people to himself in Jesus Christ. And yet, a symptom of rural church life is that small mission congregations often go unconnected for years, without the guidance and pastoral care of having their own clergy, being fortunate if they have a series of well-meaning but short-term supply priests. Seldom having an opportunity to settle into a focused pastoral relationship, congregations may begin to feel neglected. Out of that neglect can grow a reluctance to evangelize, to build relationships in their community, or to foster a pastoral relationship when a newly assigned incoming clergy finally does arrive on the church doorstop. Bi-vocational clergy support in rural areas remains in short supply, which challenges the Church to re-imagine rural church structuring. It could be that an answer lies in our own connectedness.

To their credit, I received a warm and enthusiastic welcome on my arrival to St. Paul’s in September, from both the congregation and the local ministerial alliance. Still, there were questions asked of me regarding the longevity of my stay, most who asked assuming I was only placed there for training purposes, and that I would leave after graduation in June. Any reluctance to committing a lot of resources and energy to my arrival would certainly have been understandable. While it was yet unclear in their minds whether this would be a long- or short-term relationship, my experience of Episcopalians and their neighbors in East Texas was still that they are loyal and tightly-knit, whole-hearted and generous in their welcome. This innate spirit of strength and hospitality speaks of what may very well be the as-yet untapped full potential in small churches to creatively host and flourish God’s presence in their communities.

This morning as I looked at Lou, smiling at me over a new coffee mug, it was this welcoming gesture that reminded me of the Holy Spirit’s work in bringing us all together, to glorify God and to build up this corner of his Kingdom. Putting my worries aside, I thanked for Lord for his mercy, and heartily embraced the congregation’s tangible commitment to sharing ministry at St. Paul’s, evident in the shiny stacks of coffee cups now gracing the Parish Hall.

The Uncomfortable Confusion of Advent

Sermon preached Dec. 8, 2013 at the Iona School for ministry, The Episcopal Diocese of Texas

A senior student in priesthood studies, I began this Advent 2 sermon – a practicum given before the dean, faculty and students, after standing in silence in the pulpit for the first few minutes.

Interesting, isn’t it – what happens when we wait, especially when we’re not quite sure what’s coming next. Depending on your perception of what was happening the last couple of minutes, whether you figured out what I was doing, or you were somewhat confused, each of you were probably at least a little uncomfortable. You may have thought “Oh no, she’s living out one of those Iona School nightmares: she’s hit the homiletic wall and it is Deer in the Headlights Time”. Now I’m not going to say that will never happen to me, but at least that wasn’t what happened today.

Today I want to invite you to explore with me this feeling of uncomfortable confusion. It’s a feeling that doesn’t set well with us here at the beginning of the second week of Advent. As the rest of the world rushes and hurries into a premature Christmas season, this is the time when we who follow a liturgical progression through our walk of faith intentionally turn down a different path. We pace ourselves, working from the very first day of Advent to be quiet, reflective, peaceful, waiting an entire month to complete lighting one wreath. Putting our trees up late and leaving them up while all the others are back in boxes the day after Christmas or turning brown on the curb. It would drive most people up a wall to wait that long, but to us this annual slow intention is very familiar, very comforting.

            Yet our readings this Advent are far from quiet and comforting. The Gospel of Matthew gives us John the Baptist. John, an imposing figure to say the least. The colorful details of his location, clothing and diet form an image of a wild and wooly prophet: Living in the wilderness, dressed in a shaggy camel’s coat with a big, thick leather belt cinched at his waist. He’s lean to the point of that startling kind of gauntness from a diet of honey and bugs. 

No exactly kind of guy who inspires comfortable thoughts of "peace" and "quiet."

No exactly kind of guy who inspires comfortable thoughts of “peace” and “quiet.”

His speech isn’t any more comforting than this appearance. His simple but startling call to Repent!, and his warning that this foreign kingdom is right on our doorstep cuts across the layered practices of Jewish religious life, disturbing the comfortable, dependable structures of written law, tearing his way through the hedges of the Mishnah to proclaim the arrival of Salvation through the Messiah. “Comfort” and “peace” are not the words that come to mind when picturing an encounter with John the Baptist.

            Yet people from all over were flocking to him, drawn to his message, his proclamation of the advent – the coming – of the Lord. We have this idyllic, pastoral scene of people streaming in toward the River Jordan, and John taking them each in turn, one after another, drawing up in his arms soul after soul washed clean of sin in the waters of baptism. But just as we’re settling into that lovely idea, the peace of this image is quickly broken as the John the Baptist confronts the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to be baptized, with one of the most venomous direct condemnations by a prophet recorded in Scripture: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance.” 

Walken into that uncomfortable part of Scripture right. about. now.

uncomfortableHow dare you presume to think you’re going to get a free pass on what the Lord requires of you – just try slip by without true repentance. He’s ready now to wipe you out. I may be using water to baptize you, but he’s going to use the Holy Spirit and fire. He will clear this place out, keeping the good for himself, and burning up the bad.

            Not really much room in there for a peaceful Advent. In fact, as we slip into our familiar, cozy practices of preparation and gentle anticipation, few of the rest of our Advent lectionary readings to this point have been comforting or comfortable. Instead they include calls to action, end-time Kingdom visions, fervent, unsettling warnings to stay awake and alert, and to be prepared for the triumphant, unexpected, thief-in-the-night return of Jesus, who brings not a quiet peace, but a peace forged in God’s unexpected justice and mercy, handed out with a love like nothing the world has seen or can understand.

C.S. Lewis filled several notebooks with writings on grief after the death of his wife. Those notebooks were published as the short book, “A Grief Observed.” In it, Lewis is struggling to come to terms with her loss, and finds himself worrying over the accuracy of the photos that he has left of her. He fears that along with the photos, his memories of her, his perception of how he experienced her, are all he has left to define her image – and he is scared that never again will he know a fully real and accurate version of who she was.

            His experience of time spent moving through this very uncomfortable grief, transforms his view of his attempts at understanding God, and who he is in relationship to the Divine.“My idea of God is not a divine idea,” he writes. “It has to be shattered time after time. He shatters it himself. God is the great iconoclast.” Lewis goes on to say that the very act of God shattering his own image is one of the marks of the presence of God, with the Incarnation as the supreme example that leaves all previous ideas of the Messiah in ruins.

            As we continue to move through Advent, I encourage you not to be afraid to feel uncomfortable with your thoughts on where God is in your life, and who you are in relationship to him. I encourage you not to be afraid to sit with those who are also experiencing discomfort. 05262012_Mind-Spirit_Are-you-comfortable-being-uncomfortable-IMAGE_Shepherd1-300x206This is a season to take courage to look deep into ourselves. This is a time to face and acknowledge the selfish, hateful, sinful things we may find there, and with God’s grace to pull them out by the root, making straight the path for God’s continued entrance into our lives, and the lives of those we serve. This is the time to sit with the uncomfortable grief over what has been or is being taken away from us, so that we can rediscover that God is not only about taking away. In Advent we discover again that God always gives and is giving to us a new life, and a new purpose. He is always about the work of building his Kingdom through us.

Writer Martyn Jones says that in his grief C.S. Lewis’ theology, collapses but is raised again to show the signs of its wounds. I believe it is the collapse that we fear, yet it is in those shattering experiences that we encounter the presence of the Divine Healer, who is always working out his purpose in us. The times in our ministry where we walk with the grieving can be among the hardest work we do – to sit in pastoral care with the uncomfortable, to see up close and personal, and perhaps reflected in ourselves, the fears of the people sitting in our pews and walking our streets, whom we love and serve as ministers of God’s Church. ChangeIsUncomfortable

Advent is the time to take a deep breath and to come to terms with the uncomfortable reality that the Jesus whose body was broken for the sake of the world, this same Passover sacrificed for us, is also the peace-bringer we are quietly seeking. We are called to preach and to teach that a Resurrected, Scarred Savior heals shattered lives. In the course of our ministries there will be times when we will ask the people trusted to our care to enter peacefully into that uncomfortable space of God’s taking away, and God’s restoration. Whether we minister through tragedy or well-being, as clergy we are called to live an active peace, a peace centered in the unsettling confusion of waiting with God’s people for his purpose to be revealed and fulfilled.

Be aware this Advent of becoming too quiet too soon. Of being unprepared by settling too quickly and easily into spiritual practices that fail to offer the gift of discomfort . Peace does not begin with us. It is not of our own making, but comes through the working out of God’s uncomfortable justice. This Advent season we do not start with peace, but daily we are arriving at a peace that will be completed on that silent and holy night, when Emmanuel, God With Us, will shatter the world’s idea of a Savior. Amen.


Building the Safety Net

It was getting late on Sunday afternoon and I was sitting alone in my church office after services, catching up on various administrative details while thinking about the week ahead, and musing on the week  behind me. As a bi-vocational minister serving a rural church 50 miles from where I live and work a full-time weekday job, quiet time in the church office is rare. In my senior year of studies for priesthood, I’d been at my new church for four weeks. Most of my time in the office to this point had been about unpacking, organizing, planning, and figuring out what I’d forgotten to put in the car on the other end of the drive between church and home.

In neglecting our personal time for non-essential ministry tasks, we weaken our own support system, and endanger the one we are called to build for our children.

In neglecting personal time for non-essential ministry tasks, we weaken our support system, and endanger the one we are called to build for our families.

That Sunday, I’d meant to get out of the office early to go home and enjoy the rest of the day off with my family. But as was getting to be usual for me, it was nearly 5 p.m. and I was still trying to wrap things up. Hearing a soft tapping on the glass doors in the hall adjoining my office, I poked my head out and saw a petite woman who looked to be in her 30s standing outside. Walking to the door, I noticed an old minivan in the church parking lot loaded with belongings strapped to the roof, a man sitting in the front passenger seat. The woman’s story wasn’t unusual. At first, it sounded like most other stories pastors hear from folks who come asking for help. They were traveling through on their way out of state, and needed money for gas and food, she said. Not really keen about giving out cash, and not having a gas card on hand, I loaded her arms with food from the church Pop-Top Pantry, a dry goods feeding ministry for walk-in traffic.

Ready to send her on her way with prayer and encouragement, the conversation took an unusual turn at the door. She’d stopped at our church – one of a number in our small town – because the name, St. Paul’s, called to her, she said, thanking me for the food. “My father was a priest,” she added.

That casual addition to the conversation caught my attention. Her father had died, was all she would say further about him. But she’d been raised in the faith, she said. We shared a hug as she left. “Peace be yours,” she said, unprompted, voicing a traditional Church greeting embodying God’s healing love in exchanged words of reconciliation. As we parted, I invited her to stop by the church again on her next journey through the area. As she got back into her van and left, I had doubts I would ever see her again.

Back at my desk in the church office, I sat thinking. What if her story were true? But how could it be? How does a priest’s daughter end up so desperately low as to go begging at random church doors for money? Not that clergy families are insulated from the turmoil and tragedies of life, but I just couldn’t fathom how it could have come about. Surely there was some safety net somewhere that should have kept this from happening. It frightened me to think of my own two children, and my new, busy bi-vocational life. I have no idea what happened in her family, but I could see the future of what might happen to mine if I allowed my new ministry, as much as I loved it, to completely consume all my extra time.

The complete story of who the woman was and what had brought her to my door would remain a mystery. Maybe God would bring us together again, but it was sufficient for now that he had done it today – a visit I was sure was anything but random, for either of us. Thinking of my own daughter at home 50 miles distant as I whittled away a free afternoon on non-essential paperwork and ministry self-analysis, I suddenly visualized a weakening in the portion of her safety net I was responsible for building. God had blessed me with two wonderful children, one already in college and one preparing to enter high school. In the midst of establishing a new clergy presence in this small rural congregation, I was on the cusp of forgetting that my call to motherhood had not ended because God has added a call to priesthood. In fact, my family was his gift to me, and spending time with them was a loving, supportive place to experience his restoration and joy. I closed my laptop, packed it and my papers up, grabbed my keys and headed out the door. The long ride home provided lots of time to think. There was no guarantee that my husband and I would be able to save either of our children from the kinds of decisions or circumstances in adulthood that could veer their lives off-course like the woman at my church door. But it was a virtual guarantee that if we didn’t keep family and personal time a priority, then all of our lives, and by extension our ministry, would suffer in the long run. No minister stays healthy for long if our lives at home, the foundation of our safety net, born in relationship with God and one another, are unraveling through neglect.

The best we can do for the children God places in our care is to continue as godly parents building their spiritual safety net, loving one another and our children within the holy covenant of the relationship between our family and our Creator. This model of family calls us to teach our children by word and example the image of the Body of Christ as his Church: holding each other up, guiding younger members, supporting older ones, offering accountability with love, encouragement in times of need, relying on God as our ultimate safety net. May God bless that woman in need at my door on a late Sunday afternoon as her words of peace blessed me, speaking into my need – to many a busy minister’s need – to recall that reconciliation begins at home.

Life Beyond the Door/St. Paul’s sermon Oct. 20

Robert Coney, 76, a free man, holding his wife's hand outside the Angelina County Jail in Lufkin, Texas/Photo:The Lufkin Daily News

Robert Coney, 76, holding a family member’s hand, walking out of the Angelina County Jail in Lufkin, Texas in 2004./Photo: The Lufkin Daily News

In 1962, Robert Coney was a young, African-American male traveling through East Texas when he was caught up in a nightmare. The victim of a case of mistaken identity, Robert was arrested and charged with robbing a grocery store, and convicted to life in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. He had not been allowed to speak to an attorney until the day he appeared before a judge, a guilty plea forced out of him by crushing two of his fingers between the iron bars of a jail cell. In 1976, a judge looking at the case set aside Robert’s conviction. But for reasons still unclear, that decision was never communicated to the right people in order to set him free. And Robert, sitting in prison, never knew he had in fact been freed – at least on paper. In 2004, another judge going through old files came across Robert’s case and found the error and evidence of a wrongful conviction, and immediately set in motion having the case overturned. A young journalist covering the crime beat at the time, I was there the day Robert Coney, 76, walked out of prison and into the arms of his family. The story made national news. How could it not? A black man in the South set free after serving more than 40 years of a life sentence for which he was wrongfully convicted, was compelling news, to say the least. I couldn’t help thinking of him that evening and the next day, and for several days after. The question that lingered was this: if you’ve spent a lifetime without hope, how do you live into that justice when it finally arrives at your door? I had this image in my head of Robert Coney waking up that first free morning at home, standing in the doorway of his bedroom, waiting for some imaginary steel door to slide open and a voice of authority to order him about the business we all take for granted, like showering and eating breakfast. Robert’s story came to mind this week as I read the Gospel lesson from Luke 18:1-8, about the persistent widow and the judge with no respect for God nor man who finally granted her justice because she didn’t give up. How much more, Jesus says in this Parable to his disciples, does our Eternal Judge, the God who loves us, desire to give justice quickly to his chosen who cry to him day and night? Will we be persistent in the Faith, praying to our Heavenly Father and placing all our trust in him in the midst of an unjust world? Or will the Son of Man return to find us without faith? Like Robert, we may feel hopeless. We may have suffered injustice in our life and feel there is no way out. We may know others who have. But unlike Robert, we do not have to miss out on the story of our own freedom. We will go out of here today with a message of freedom and hope for ourselves and for others. The message is this: Jesus Christ died and rose again for our sins and we are forgiven and reunited with God in that act of redemption. We are free. Even as we wait for justice, we are free. We have a hope in us that carries us forward, safe in knowing we have a God who loves us and gives us strength. As others search for their justice, they are already free in Christ Jesus. But like Robert, they may not know it. It is our work as Christians to tell them the decision has already been made. They are free, and they can begin to live their lives knowing the hope of God that is in them. So when God’s justice arrives at their door, they will be able to live into it. We as the Church are called to go to our own doorway and to step out of it into the world, without waiting for someone to come by and open it. Without waiting for someone to tell us we can go and serve. We are free. It is time to start living our freedom. It is time to start living God’s justice in the world. Amen.