The last blog…

Thank You Note

It’s time to let “God Is Always More” go.  I want to thank all of you who have stayed with me over the past three years. To those of you who made the leap from the blog I wrote in the monastery to this new platform, more thanks.

Here’s the short story. Full-time ministry is challenging and exciting.  I’ve found that my creative energies find fulfillment in the work I do for the Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts and in Sunday preaching.  There will only be more of that (preaching) in the months ahead.  Bloggers are supposed to insert themselves into your life on a much more regular basis than I have been able to do in the last year or so.  I wish I had the time to continue this ministry.  There have been many blessings for me here in the connections made with so many wonderful people. But I know that this coming year will have a different rhythm and I need to give myself to that in faith.

So, I think I am ready to let this fantastic domain name expire in a few days.  (If anyone wants it, go for it!) God continues to be “more” in my spiritual journey – full of wonderful surprises and unrelenting love. The year ahead is going to be filled with “more,” too.  It’s all good.  It is all gift.  So, for now, I pray a blessing on all of you and ask you to do the same for me.

God’s peace, every grace and love,

Vicki

Divine power in the service of love…

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The Wedding at Cana is one of the best-known gospel stories. It’s one of those stories we can deconstruct and find all the secret references to other biblical stories and motifs. Everything means something in this narrative. John the Evangelist is placing Jesus at the center of God’s plan for our salvation.

  • The third day of the week = resurrection on the third day
  • First of seven signs in John’s Gospel
  • Jesus’ “hour”= death and resurrection
  • Abundance of wine = prophetic motif for God’s reign in Isaiah, Amos & Wisdom
  • Water to blood = Moses / water to wine = Messiah
  • Wedding banquet = heavenly banquet
  • Cleansing ritual replaced / new law is love, compassion

This is lots of fun – especially for Scripture geeks, but when it’s my turn to preach, I always wind up asking myself the same two questions:

“What does this story tell me about God?”

“What does it tell me about how I should live in this world?”

New Testament stories are especially transparent because of Jesus. Because of him we know God. We can deduce some things about the Creator from the Word made flesh. That’s what this sign stuff is all about anyway. It’s not like subsequent miracles in the Gospel of John where Jesus heals the blind or raises the dead. This one was “a shot over the bow” – a signal to Jesus’ friends that he was in fact the Messiah and that their gut instincts about him were spot-on.

When Jesus was baptized in the Jordan, it was his moment of clarity – of self-understanding. When the water became wine at Cana, the disciples became certain that Jesus was the messiah.

So, back to my questions about God and how we should live in this world. Here are five things that came from my study and prayer with this text:

  1. Miracles don’t always have to be epic wonders.

This one was like a little switcheroo magic trick. First it’s water, now it’s wine…how did he do that? So maybe we need to be on the look-out for small miracles – the kind that happen in the midst of everyday life – like this one. God is still acting in our time, in our history to help us make our way to eternity. Miracles are less visible, attached to disciples now that Jesus is everywhere in Spirit. But they still happen. We can take the little ones for granted or explain them away. The challenge is not so much to see them as it is to express our gratitude when we know God has done something wonderful.

  1. God acts in direct relationship to expressed need.

Raymond Brown “Jesus can never resist faith.” We have to ask God to do something and trust that somehow our prayer is taken into God’s heart.

  1. God cares about our dignity – acts to mitigate shame and humiliation.

The bride and groom would have been humiliated if the wine ran out in their week of nuptial festivity. If Jesus did something for them, what must Jesus want to do for us in our moments of shame and humiliation? Taking it one step farther, how can we respond to the humiliation and shame of others? This is a really hard one in the age of social media when it’s so easy to pile on and join the shaming. Because shame is universal and we’ve all felt it, we know how painful it is to stand in the light as others see our failure, our weakness or our sin. I’ve been reading a lot about shame. Dr. Brené Brown has a book called The Gifts of Imperfection. It’s very helpful and she’s a card-carrying Episcopalian!

  1. God gives us more than we ask for or need for a reason. What we are given is always for the common good. God is trusting us to share.
  1. Being a disciple of Jesus means obedience. “Do whatever he tells you.”

Here’s the other thing I’ve been wondering. Do you think Jesus didn’t feel ready to do his first sign?

  • We know Moses wasn’t ready to speak truth to Egypt and Jeremiah felt too young to be God’s prophet.
  • I doubt Mary felt ready when an angel asked her to make a home for God in her womb.
  • What about the monk Martin Luther nailing those 99 issues on the church door in Wittenberg?
  • Ghandi facing the military power of the British Empire?
  • And what about Dr. King, whom we honor this weekend?
  • Do you think Oscar Romero felt ready when the people of El Salvador needed a voice for justice?
  • And what about our new Presiding Bishop Michael Curry? I wonder when he flew to Canterbury last weekend if he felt ready for what might happen at the Primates’ meeting?

So maybe Jesus wasn’t ready. Maybe, he wanted more time to be with his family. Maybe, he was afraid. I wish we could get inside his head. If we only had a Gospel according to Jesus…

“It’s too soon. This can’t be the way this is supposed to go down. No wine? I was sent for bigger things – for fullness of life, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the dead. No wine? This can’t be my moment of glory.”  

Ready or not, it was the moment God chose through Mary. At her bidding Jesus gave his first demonstration of divine power in the service of love – not power for power’s sake, but power in the service of love.

By our baptism we have access to that power. That’s why we visit these texts week after week to prepare our hearts for service, for action rooted in love. You might not feel ready either, but that’s ok. When the time to comes, people of faith feel it and the Spirit of the Living God will do the rest.

Amen.

_____________

This sermon was given at St. John’s, Northampton, MA

“Provoke one another to love…”

Peace for Paris by Jean Jullien
Peace for Paris by Jean Jullien

No one crossing the threshold of a church today can do so without the people of Paris in their hearts and minds. Preaching the Good News is daunting two days after this calculated effort to take human life. What we have heard about it in the past 24 hours has shifted from the horror to the pursuit of justice. At least 132 families are grieving. Hundreds more are tending to the wounded and the emotionally scarred. Here in America we feel helpless. We don’t know how to comfort Paris so we change our profile pictures on Facebook – a small act of solidarity that allows us to do SOMETHING. We are bombarded with 24-hour coverage of eyewitness accounts from the restaurant and seven seconds of Vine video from the stadium. In short we, too, have been assaulted by evil.

I had no sermon Friday night when news of the attack came into our home. And, yesterday, I wasn’t so sure there would be a sermon at all. But the Word of God has power. Let’s start there.

Our Gospel today is kind of eerie. Mark has Jesus predict the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD – an event that happened forty years after Jesus but within Mark’s lifetime. So what may feel kind of end-of-the-world-ish is more about the fall of Jerusalem. Still, Jesus bids his friends peace.

“When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, don’t be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom…”

See what I mean about eerie? “Don’t be alarmed,” Jesus says to his friends. I don’t know about you, but I’ve been plenty “alarmed” since Friday night. The things of this earth, the things that happen to its people matter deeply to us. So, I don’t think Jesus is telling us to relax or to be indifferent to the suffering in the world. I think Jesus is telling that God has us. Somehow – even in the face of terror and death and evil – God has us.

I am certain than more than one person in church today has wondered: How could God allow terrorists to kill innocent people?

I could try to answer that question. I could pull out every scrap of Theology I’ve ever been taught about free will and sin to try and make sense of it all. But that would put God in some little box and do nothing for our pain, our bewilderment, and our anger. Yes, I said anger. There must be some of that surging inside us, too. We are human and what we feel is so important. What we feel marks us as unique in all creation. But what is a Christian to DO?

8050007-adult-blue-band-with-lt-blue-print-wwjd-what-would-jesus-do-silicone-band-christianDo you remember back in the 90’s those rubber bracelets that had WWJD on them? What Would Jesus Do? It was a great way to help my High School students integrate the biblical and the moral in their own life. But even as I found this trend useful, I sometimes thought it kind of presumptuous. We can look at what Jesus did and extrapolate meaning from his actions. But I’m not so sure I can tell you what Jesus would do now. The Son of God might have a few tricks up his sleeve – some new moves for 21st century believers.

It’s not like Jesus doesn’t show up. The risen Lord is with us and I’ve seen him quite a bit lately in the lives of his disciples.

  • Did you see Jesus on your Twitter feed the other night? He was offering the frightened people on the streets of Paris a place to stay the night.

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  • Jesus was also seen driving a French taxi all night and refusing to charge a fare.

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  • Jesus drew a peace sign and stuck the Eiffel Tower right in the middle of it. It’s converting hearts to peace even as everything in us is spoiling for war.

Jesus has been very busy in the last few days inspiring people of faith to sow love where there is hatred. WWJD…I don’t know what Jesus of Nazareth would do about terrorism, but I have a better idea of what he WOULDN’T do.

Let’s go back to our Scriptures today.bIn the excerpt from I Samuel, Hannah sings a song of praise because she has been given a child after many years of longing. Her song is the inspiration for Mary of Nazareth who gave God her song of praise when Jesus was conceived in her womb. You can probably hear the echoes in Hannah’s hymn: “My soul exults in the Lord…”

Both hymns tell us that God likes to turn things upside down. The poor will be raised up. The hungry will be given a banquet. The powerful, conversely, will fall. Evil will not triumph.

I love this hymn and Mary’s Magnificat, too. I love them because it feels true. It feels like things are upside-down in this world and that the God we know in Jesus is longing for things to be made right – for the tables to turn and for the saints to know joy. How God will do this, I don’t know, but I believe the promises of Jesus. God’s kingdom is coming and you and I have a hand in it. Somehow, what we do matters, that we love matters. Building the kingdom isn’t about great big stones or about power. Building the kingdom is less perceptible but we know when we’re doing it. And we know when we’re not.

We have to help each other. We need to encourage one another to live the faith especially when it’s hard – especially when darkness tries to stamp out the light. That is when we must shine with love, shine with peace, shine with the hope that we have in Jesus and in the God who sent him.

I think that’s what Paul is telling us in the Letter to the Hebrews:

Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful. And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds…”

Provoke one another to love and good deeds.” Wow. Imagine that? When we are being provoked to do many things – love and good deeds.

I’m going to suggest one other thing in addition to the wisdom of the Word today. I suggest joy. When darkness wants to overtake the light, we must continue to be Christians – people who live with the knowledge of God’s faithfulness, people who know God cares, people who know that love has the power to save us all.

We have shed tears and will shed more in the days to come. But today is the Lord’s Day. I hope when you leave here you can live this day in joy. We owe it to the people lost in Paris. Be light. Be peace. Be joy for a world that needs it all.

What it your cup holding now?

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The gospel today is rich with lessons. Jesus is the servant leader who calls us to be servants, too. But what I want to reflect on today is the exchange between Jesus and the Sons of Zebedee. When James and John ask to have a special place in God’s glory,instead of whacking them in the back of the head – what I’d probably do – Jesus says:

“You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?”

They say, “yes” to something they don’t understand. This is before the Last Supper – before Jesus takes the cup and says,:

“Drink this, all of you:
This is my Blood of the new Covenant, which is shed for you…”

This is before his suffering and death on the cross. After these things, the disciples will make some connections. After these things, much of what he said will make sense. For now, they say “yes” to something beyond their imagining.

Henri-JM-Nouwen

Henri Nouwen, a Dutch Catholic priest who wrote prolifically during his lifetime, wrote a very short book called, Can you drink the cup? Of the thirty or so he penned, this is one of my favorites. It became part of my spiritual reality. It’s a very short book in which Henri unpacks the question Jesus asks the brothers and applies it to the spiritual journey of every Christian.

He suggests that the “cup” is our life. We drink because we thirst for love and meaning and hope. We drink never knowing the joy or suffering to come.

the-cup

There is no unraveling of the mystery of being human here, just the sense that Henri has been around the block, too. His life – like all lives – was a mixture of joy and suffering. His point is that Christ will transform it all – somehow, mysteriously, graciously, lovingly.

When Jesus asks the sons of Zebedee if they can drink the cup, he is really asking them if they are willing to follow him – to live the Good News – no matter where that may lead. He is asking them to trust that God will be with them through it all and that God will raise them, too.

The question is the question for every follower of Jesus.

“Can you drink the cup?”

Can you accept what comes in your life – all the joy, all the sorrow – raise it, ask God to bless it and drink?

Every cup is different. Half-filled with sorrow or maybe almost to the brim? What does the cup of you life look like? It might be a fruitful meditation to close your eyes and imagine the cup of your life.

  • Is it shiny? Made of something precious and strong?
  • Is it dented or chipped but still holds the wine of life?
  • Is it made of clay or metal or alabaster?
  • Has it held love and joy and wonder?
  • Has it held loss, failure and loneliness?
  • Has it been nearly empty?
  • What is your cup holding now?

Can you take in your hands, raise it up, ask God to bless it and drink?

Here’s the real kicker in the book. At the end, Henri suggests that this is what we do every time we go to Holy Communion and say, “Amen.” Nouwen says we are saying “yes” to the gift of life – to all that it contains. We are saying yes to sharing this road with Jesus. We are saying “yes” as we drink in remembrance of him who remains with us in these simple signs. We are saying “yes” to life, to love, to loss and pain, profound disappointments and moments of transcendent joy.

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This act of sharing in the Eucharist is deceptively mundane and routine. We understand that there is power in the Eucharist, but it eludes us. We believe that it changes us, but we strain to recognize how. Every week bread and wine. Every Sunday we tell the story and share the meal. Yet, beneath the signs themselves, the risen One is with us. That’s what he promised us.

This morning I suggest that simply taking that bread, taking that cup,we are engaging in a radical act of faith. Each “amen” is an assent to the death and resurrection of Christ – not just in remembrance of what happened two thousand years ago in Palestine – but the dying and the rising that happens in our own lives.

St. Paul tells us that we were all “baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection.” So somehow our lives – brimming over with pain and promise – replicate the Paschal Mystery.

Following Jesus is not easy. Being a disciple is hard. But we have this thing called “grace” – this river of love that runs beneath everything and surrounds us even – perhaps, especially – when we cannot feel it. Grace at work in our lives doesn’t guarantee joy or prosperity or success or even a place to sleep. But grace enables human beings to hope, to care for one another, to make up for what is lacking, to call for justice, to stand with the oppressed, to weep with the grieving and dance with those who have a moment of pure joy.

We can do these things because Christ’s power working in us “can do infinitely more than we ask or imagine.” We can take the cup of our lives in two hands, say “yes” to all that it contains, drink deeply and go on.

The sacrament is a great mystery – a mysterion, in Greek. We’re not supposed to reach the fullness of understanding now. But one thing is certain. The sacraments are for us – gifts to help us along the way. When we take that cup in our hands or dip our bread in its bowl, we proclaim Christ’s death and resurrection.

It is never just one or the other. For now, here, it is linked. But our dying will always lead to rising. Until one day, there will be no more dying and just the cup of joy.

Job and St. Francis: God Revealed in Creation

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The following is the sermon offered this morning at St. John’s Episcopal Church, Northampton, MA.

How many of you know the story of Job? Someone wrote this one down so that we might ponder our own questions about God’s ways. The story opens with a conversation between God and the Tempter – Satan. Looking down at Job, Satan issues a challenge. Would your boy Job still praise you if I took everything away from him? God bets on Job’s faithfulness. 

Let’s juxtapose Job with our saint of the day – Francis of Assisi. Francis st-francis-giottowas real and his story was recorded only 800 years ago. But these two guys have something in common and their stories have much to teach us about God’s creation.Francis, by contrast, gives up everything voluntarily. He prefers to own nothing which will align him with God’s poor ones.

Job loses everything he loves and suffers sickness, grief and isolation. He never loses faith in God’s goodness or love for him.

Francis chooses utter dependency on God and praises God no matter how little his portion.

In Job and Francis we can see the mysterious pattern of the Christian life.

  • We suffer and yet we praise God.
  • We choose to give up things that derail our search for God. And this brings joy,

Here’s what I love about Job. His faith is rock-solid. He knows God loves him. He is convinced that God is only good. BUT…our comic book hero channels all of humanity when he asks the $64,000 question: “Why, God?” This is what we all do as human beings. We ask “why.”

Here’s what I love about Francis. He can let go of what holds him back and do it with joy. Even though his life is on the right path, sometimes he misunderstands God’s plan for him. Francis hears God whisper: “Rebuild my church.” So, God love him, he finds a church in ruins and starts hauling rocks to fix it. God, Francis discovers, had a more institutional repair in mind.

Even though both stories suggest an extreme version of the life of faith, in Job and Francis I see what faith can do in every life. Faith gets us through the worst of it and helps us find the best of it.

So, what do these two stories have to teach us about God’s creation? It is October 4 – the kick-off day of Creation Season in churches all over the world. We will bless our creatures great and small and celebrate our Eucharist outside.

More importantly, Creation Season is about taking action to slow the changes that are impacting our planet and the most vulnerable of its people.

Recently, I was able to travel with our Missioner for Creation Care, the Rev. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, to Washington, DC where she joined a delegation of religious leaders for advocacy. Once I got over the excitement of Capitol Hill, I started to listen and what I heard was heart breaking.

There is a study still under dispute by a former NASA scientist, James Hansen.[i] It suggests that if we do nothing now, by 2065 several of America’s coastal cities will be under 10 feet of water. New Orleans, Miami Beach, New York, Boston – if we do nothing now.

Back to Job…

In the story of Job, our hero gets to talk to God. God is clearly proud of Job. His faith was strong indeed in spite of all the tragedy and suffering that came his way. But, when Job asks “why,” God draws a line in the sand. Instead of answering – which would have been really helpful for us – God returns Job’s question with more questions and they all have to do with creation.

“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding.

 

“Or who shut in the sea with doors
when it burst out from the womb,

 

“Have you commanded the morning since your days began, and caused the dawn to know its place,

 

“Have you entered into the springs of the sea,
or walked in the recesses of the deep?

 

“Have you entered the storehouses of the snow,
or have you seen the storehouses of the hail,

 

“Who has cleft a channel for the torrents of rain
and a way for the thunderbolt,

God’s answer to Job’s universal question is creation.

I think God is suggesting that we look around at the wisdom, beauty and perfection of the world. If God did this, then we are in good hands. If God did this, then there is so much God knows that we can’t understand. What if we could enter the mystery, embrace it?  Within the mystery of life – in its beauty and in its suffering – God is with us.

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Creation is the sign of God’s great power and love for us. All this is ours to appreciate, preserve and protect. The One who made it all is with us and is pulling for us as we struggle with our selfishness and indifference.

What about Francis? Well, thanks to Francis, we can see that creation is not just for us – it is part of us. “Brother sun, sister moon” – we are in relationship. We are dependent on the health of this planet – our fragile island home. God made the air, the water and every living creature and that makes it all holy and good. Our Eden needs tending. It is no longer a paradise. It matters because it is all mysteriously part of us – our life is bound up with the life of this planet.

God has made it so.

[i] Ice melt, sea level rise and superstorms: evidence from paleoclimate data, climate modeling, and modern observations that 2 °C global warming is highly dangerous
J. Hansen1, M. Sato1, P. Hearty2, R. Ruedy3,4, M. Kelley3,4, V. Masson-Delmotte5, G. Russell4, G. Tselioudis4, J. Cao6, E. Rignot7,8, I. Velicogna7,8, E. Kandiano9, K. von Schuckmann10, P. Kharecha1,4, A. N. Legrande4, M. Bauer11, and K.-W. Lo3,4

He changed his mind…

Canaanite Woman, Très Riches Heures Duc de Berry circa 1410
Canaanite Woman, Très Riches Heures
Duc de Berry circa 1410 

The following is the sermon offered this morning on Mark 7:24-37 at St. John’s Episcopal Church, Northampton, MA.  

“Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

This is some gospel! I wonder if our rector peaks before she decides who’s preaching?

Jesus’ encounter with the Syrophoenician woman has always been hard to understand. We’re not accustomed to Jesus excluding people – drawing some line around the Good News.

Still, everything in the Scriptures has been included for a reason – human or divine. So, how do we embrace this Jesus? We can never know what he was thinking. But what if he had a secret plan?

Back in the late 1980’s I was a very young teacher in an all-girls Catholic school. I was teaching an elective for juniors and seniors called, “Peace and Social Justice.” About halfway through the course we started talking about research papers. I told them that the juniors would have to write a 10-page paper and the seniors would be writing two ten-page papers. Well! You should have heard the wailing and the gnashing of teeth! “That’s not fair!” “

Of course, this was exactly what I wanted to have happen. We were about to begin a unit on racism. These young women were white, affluent, for the most part and not used to being in the minority. It was a simple classroom experiment, but it opened a door beyond their experience.

Jesus was the master teacher. In word and in action he always showed us God’s heart. I don’t know if Jesus played this one or if he really couldn’t see beyond the mission to Israel. Some biblical scholars say that Mark was trying to make Jesus look tough to the Jews while, at the same time, stretching the borders of salvation to include a very despised group of people. Still, what shocks us here can be very useful in our spiritual growth.

Jesus changed his mind about the Samaritan woman. Her faith moved him to act differently. Changing our minds about something sounds very pedestrian – very small – but actually, it’s about transformation.

During the Civil Rights Movement, many Americans changed their minds about the human worth and dignity of Black people.

Marchers carrying banner "We march with Selma!" on street in Harlem, New York City, New York.
Marchers carrying banner “We march with Selma!” on street in Harlem, New York City, New York.

In more recent years many have changed their minds about the human worth and dignity of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people.

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Changing our minds is no small thing.

When we change our minds about something, we open ourselves to a different version of reality. Often, it’s about an idea – a way of looking at something. Sometimes, it about really big stuff like who matters and who doesn’t.

In grammar school who matters looks very different from our adult world, doesn’t it. High School isn’t much better. I still think about classmates I said things to or about that I wish I could take back. I think most of us feel that way looking in the rearview mirror. At the same time as I’ve grown in age and wisdom, I’ve made peace with my teenaged self. I am much more interested in who I can be now in this moment of my life. I’m learning to be gentle with my younger self. We grow through things and beyond things by God’s design and with God’s grace. Even baby Jesus “grew in wisdom.”

Witnessing Jesus do a 180-degree turn in this exchange is a powerful witness for me. There are still things and people I need to change my mind about. We are all unfinished. We’re never done becoming until our last breadth. We can always change our minds and hearts. Sometimes, it’s urgent. Sometimes it may mean life or death

This past week Gosia and I have been deeply troubled by the plight of the Syrian refugees. Certainly, they are not the only refugees on the move. But the suffering and death resulting from this mass migration is more than most people can bear.

Most people.

Some individuals have been taking advantage of them – taking money for “safe passage” and then abandoning these families and leaving them to die. That’s just a crime and a sin. Our reading from Proverbs this morning spells it out. “Do not rob the poor because they are poor, or crush the afflicted at the gate (Proverbs 22:22).”

Some countries have closed their doors believing that these suffering people will somehow degrade their culture or change their quality of life. They are afraid. Fear is usually what makes us choose something less than how we want to be. When we function in scarcity mode – fearful than there won’t be enough for us – then, the grace of the gospel can’t flow freely in our lives. It’s very easy for us to judge these people, but judging them doesn’t help. We have to believe that they can change their minds about the refugees. Look what happened in the UK. England said “no” to the refugees and the people rose up and said, “yes.” Their voices helped the government to change its mind in a hurry!

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Germany and Iceland are leading the way – showing the world how to love without fear. Again, The Book of Proverbs confirms it for us. “Those who are generous are blessed, 
for they share their bread with the poor (Proverbs 22:9).”

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The faith of some can move the many. Our faith in action can move mountains.

As individuals we are wired for transformation – for growth into God’s image and likeness. It is never too late to change our minds – especially about human beings – our brothers and sisters in Christ.   It is never too late to give someone another chance – to remember that they are unfinished – still becoming.

It’s never too late to realize our world view is too small – that there are people who need to be in the circle at our tables.

Jesus changed his mind. We can, too.

“What sign will you give us…?”

The following is the sermon given at Morning Prayer today at St. John’s Episcopal Church, Northampton, MA. 

download“What sign will you give us then that we may see it and believe in you?” John 6:30

Five seconds after Jesus feeds the 5,000 with a few loaves and fishes, his newest followers are asking for another sign. Stories like this one always make me feel sorry for Jesus. They just didn’t get it.

The Jewish people were expecting the messiah to replicate the miracles of Moses and Elijah. The loaves and fishes weren’t enough for them. They wanted manna from heaven.

Jesus tries to explain. God gave them manna, not Moses and God has sent the Son of Man to be bread for the life of the world. The true bread is a person – the one sent by God in heaven. In him God has given us everything we will ever need. For them – and for us – that’s a lot to take in, isn’t it? It’s no wonder we ask God for signs.

We get just so far in our faith and then we need something – an experience of grace, a moment of insight, a “sign”. I’m not talking about the stuff that fills the tabloids in the grocery store. Someone saw Jesus on a pancake at IHOP. No, that stuff just diverts us from the real presence of the risen Christ in our midst. But sometimes we really do need something and it’s then that God surprises us with a gift.

We ask for signs at critical moments in our lives. After the death of a loved one – when we are bereft and moving through the darkness of grief – that’s often when we feel the urgency for a sign – for the comfort of knowing that the person we love still is. One of my favorite films is called, “Wide Awake.” It’s about a little boy who goes looking for God after his Grandpa dies just to make sure he’s ok. Isn’t that what we all do when someone dies?  I know I did.

I’m sure many of you could tell me stories – a dream you had that felt like more than a dream, a song on the radio or a smell or a memory that seemed to make your loved one present to you in some mysterious way. Sometimes, by grace and with time, the people we loved and lost come close. We’re afraid to tell people because they’ll think it’s just wishful thinking. But we who believe in the resurrection shouldn’t be afraid to tell our Easter stories. We should be able to tell one another that we are certain that life really never ends. That’s what we believe and what Jesus tried to tell them. “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”

The true bread is a person. Believe in him, nurture your relationship with him, reorient your life to reflect that relationship and you will be satisfied. You will know peace here and now. And you will recognize the signs of God’s abiding love all around you every day. And you will share this “bread” with strangers and friends because the banquet has been prepared for all people.

I’ve gotten lots of signs from God in my life – nothing dramatic or miraculous. They were more like nudges in the right direction. When I made big mistakes – there would be a way to make things right. When I was lost, a new path would emerge. When I asked for help, it came. It didn’t always look like what I asked for, but I came to trust the voice of God in my life – in here. This poem by Rosemary Morgan expresses this movement.

The Last Best Holy Card

I’ve given up searching for God    out there

transcendence leaves me feeling somehow diminished

focuses me on what I am not

ignores divine spark   the energy

which fuels me into loving

I have become my own holy card

I look to my own sacred heart

open up the small twin doors to the furnace

in my chest and see divinity ablaze

and cupping near my hands I am warmed

Yes, God is within us – speaking to us in our lives – giving us exactly what we need to take the next step. The sign I get most often and have come to trust is love. Love leads us everywhere we need to go. Love directs us to move beyond ourselves and to think, for a moment, what it must be like to be hungry or thirsty or homeless or afraid. Love impels, instructs and guides us. It is the sign we can always trust and the way to a deeper level of believing in Jesus.

The true bread is a person – the one sent by God from heaven. His word, his wisdom, his way is love.

Give us this bread all the days of our life.

Jesus in a box…

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The following is the sermon offered this morning at Christ Church Episcopal – Trinity Lutheran Church in Sheffield, MA.

Proper 9/Year C

Mark 6:1-13

Good morning! My name is Vicki Ix. I am a licensed lay preacher and the Communications Director for the Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts. First, let me say how happy I am to be with you all again. This is the third time Annie has invited me to preach and each time I drive away from Sheffield, I take a little bit of the spirit of this community with me.

Speaking of Annie, I left her in Salt Lake City after my eight-day stint at the 78th General Convention of the Episcopal Church. As an alternate deputy, Annie had to remain the full length of the legislative sessions. She was an energetic and eager deputy – open to the experience of God’s presence in the gathering and determined to give herself totally to the process. It was my first General Convention, too. Lots happened there and I will touch on that more in a few minutes. But first, let’s have a look at today’s gospel.

Jesus faces failure. In his own hometown, he was confronted by the smallness of the human condition.  They said, “Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands (Mark 1:2)!” It must have hurt when they rejected his message. It must have been especially painful to fail in front of his neighbors and relatives.

As I read the story I was thinking about this goofy prank we used to play on people when I was in Jr. high. I think many of you will remember it. You dial the number of a local store and when someone answers you ask: “Do you have Prince Albert in a can?”

When they say yes to your request for this brand of tobacco, you say, “Well, you better let him out!” Then, you hang up and call another store. My friends and I were really proud of ourselves when we updated the game for the ‘70’s. “Do you have Captain Crunch in a box?” Well, you get it.

The people of Nazareth put Jesus in a box. He was the carpenter, the son of Joseph. How could he possibly be the anointed of God? How could they take to heart the teaching of someone they thought they knew so well?

We still do this with prophets – especially if we don’t want to hear what they have to say.   We put them into boxes.

“She’s a flaming liberal.”

“He’s a FOX news Republican.”

“Just another angry Black man.”

“When will those gay people stop adding letters? I can’t keep up.”

“Those evangelicals are all Bible thumpers…”

“High Church”, “Low Church,” “Broad Church”

We put prophets in boxes so that we can tune out the truth – protect ourselves from having to change or grow or repent.

So many wonderful things happened at the General Convention. No one person decided anything. The voices of the laity, the priests and bishops were all heard and every soul present was given a vote. I’ve never experience Church this way before. I was raised in a very top-down, hierarchical church. I never experienced the feeling of the Spirit of God at work in the whole community. It was like watching holy CSPAN. Some things passed, others were rejected, but in all of it I felt certain that the gathering itself was the prophet in our midst. When a resolution was decided, there was peace because we prayed and listened to one another. What was decided was decided by the Spirit of God among us.

So among other important business, the GC passed resolutions that will guarantee that marriage is marriage for everyone. The Church decided to get a little bit smaller as an organization. And, the Church elected a new Presiding Bishop – a holy man who will begin his service on November 1. The Rt. Rev. Michael Curry of NC will be the first African American PB in the history of the Episcopal Church. He was elected on the first ballot in record time and passed the House of Deputies with an overwhelming majority. The Church decided this together with the power of the Holy Spirit. It was truly an experience of the prophetic aspect of being Church.

My job at General Convention was to cover everything and makes sure the folks here at home got some sense of the historic decisions being made in our Church. I got to wear a press pass – like a real journalist! I was in two briefings each day with the major players – lay and ordained. Right after the election of Bishop Curry, the real media (NYTimes, CNN, AP, Reuters, etc.) were given access to the Bishop. This press conference was streamed live. An interesting moment happened toward the end. A journalist from a notable Anglican blog asked Bishop Curry a question. Would he characterize himself in the Anglican world as a “traditionalist” or a “progressive.” Bishop Curry smiled for a moment and said nothing. Then he said, “I am a follower of Jesus.”

Bam! He escaped the trap! Like Jesus, leaders are tested with questions that are really a “Catch 22.” Bishop Curry changed the game and answered with the truth in his heart. Perhaps, this Presiding Bishop will be remembered one day as a prophet among us. I hope we all give him the chance to tell us the story of Jesus in a new way. I hope we welcome the challenges ahead of us, the truth he’s been given to share. My feeling is that it will be very difficult for anyone – with any agenda – to put Bishop Curry in a box.

Don’t get me wrong. Putting people in boxes is a whole lot easier than listening to them. If we put the prophet in a box, we can just pretend we never heard the message. We can just go on telling ourselves that the kingdom of God is all taken care of. We won’t have to roll up our sleeves and work for justice. We won’t have to look at how our plenty could be hurting those who go without.

But if we do that – if we put the prophets in a box – then, like Jesus in Nazareth, they cannot bless us or heal us or remind us that Love is the only currency in the kingdom of God. If we put our prophets in a box, we will not catch that glimpse of Jesus as he passes through our town. Whether they hear or refuse to hear (for they are a rebellious house), they shall know that there has been a prophet among them (Ezekiel 2:5)

Do we have Jesus in a box? Well, we better let him out.

Flower power…

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Our parish church was lovely – as it is every Easter Sunday.  It was packed, too! I love being displaced on Easter Sunday.  I love the multitude of faces never before seen.  It is a day of new life on so many levels – an opportunity for the seeds of relationship to grow. So, we’re sitting in the way back on the “uni-pew” – the long bench that runs the length of the nave.  The brass quartet, the choir, the sound of every voice singing, the incense – it was great!  In the midst of the sounds and smells of Easter Sunday she came – my Mom – for just a split-second.

When I say “she came,” I don’t mean a vision.  Although words fail me now, I want to express the reality of these visits.  I’ve written about them before – moments of clarity in which the boundary between here and there blurs a bit and I sense her presence – that’s all.  But that moment of recognition is precious to me.  I’ve come to trust it and treasure the gift.

There is almost always a trigger of some kind – a memory, a song, a place that stirs my soul.  Yesterday, it was the flowers.  The Hyacinths.  These funny springtime beauties singular in appearance and odor.  They grew plentiful in my grandfather’s garden and were a certain sign that Lent would be over soon. When I was very little, the name of the flower cracked me up.  My Mother’s name was Cynthia.  “Hi ya, Cynth!”

They have such a distinct fragrance, too.  twenty years later when my Mom was dying, me and my Dad w to visit her on Easter Sunday.  We brought her a Hyacinth and placed it by her bed. She had been moved from a top-notch New York hospital over the river to a nursing home in New Jersey.  It was just a matter of months then.  Even though she was in a coma, her eyes would open.  It was so hard to stop hoping.

It was a very good skilled-care environment and the nurses were kind and gentle.  That meant a lot to me.  Still, it was a nursing home with all the attendant sights and smells.  We didn’t stay long that afternoon.  It was very hard to see my Dad with her.  We both were pretty wrecked.  But suddenly the smell of the Easter flowers filled her room.  A place for dying became a garden.  I guess I have never forgotten that Easter among all my Easters.  And God, in God’s great mercy, has put something of the power of the resurrection in those Hyacinths.  They have become – for me – icons of the empty tomb.  Those funny looking flowers have become a sign of something I know in my gut – He lives so she lives, too.  And, for just a sweet, fleeting moment yesterday, I felt visited.

Alleluia, Christ is risen!  Christ is risen, indeed!

The story that changed everything…

imagesGregory Collins, an Irish monk and professor wrote the following: “Liturgy is like dreaming.”[i] Like our dreams, the liturgy can hold all kinds of things together – life and death, suffering and joy, failure and victory. And, today we have, a very confusing juxtaposition of events – the high of “Hosanna in the highest” mixed together with the suffering and death of Jesus. Sometimes, Palm Sunday leaves me with a kind of liturgical whiplash. I don’t know whether to rejoice or weep. Sometimes, I end up doing both.

The story we are about to hear is too well known to us – the betrayal, the meal, the arrest, the torture and execution. It is a story of the great violence. It’s so ingrained in us as followers of the Christ, that we have the tendency to shut down – to let the play wash over us so that we can avoid the pain. I want to suggest another way. What if we embraced the violence? What if we looked it square in the eye? The betrayal, the torture, the execution – we hear about those things every day on the way to work. But what if this one story is the story I need to let in? What if this story holds the key to everything? Isn’t that what we believe about the Passion of Jesus Christ?

There are important lessons within the Passion – things you and I can only learn from Jesus.

  • Jesus’ response to violence is to contain it.

Jesus chooses to absorb the violence of the world – take it into himself. That doesn’t mean he wants it to happen. But he chooses not to stop it. Jesus could have called down fire or an earthquake, an army of angels. No. Jesus decided that the violence would stop with him.

There have been others who made his choice – people who decided to absorb violence instead of becoming violent themselves. Some were mowed down by British soldiers in India. Others were beaten on a bridge in Selma, Alabama. The radical choice to absorb violence and end the cycle of its power is as old as this Gospel narrative. It was his way. It can be our way. What if everyone who heard this story today said, “The violence stops with me.”

  • Jesus forgives the evil done to him.

From the cross he asks God to forgive everyone involved with his execution – the soldiers, the religious establishment, the Roman governor, the mob. That capacity to pray good on those who hurt us is, I think, one of the higher rungs on the spiritual ladder. I love being Jesus-like until someone hurts me or worse, someone I love.

I was reading Walter Winks – remember that funny name? He suggests that a lot of the violence in the Bible that is attributed to God is actually human revenge wrapped up with a holy bow. The people who wrote the Scriptures were inspired by God but they were still human beings. The impulse to seek revenge, to bring about the punishment of the other is a very powerful instinct. But Jesus shows us another way. Jesus has the will to love even the ones who wished him dead. He prays for them all with the last of his breath.

  • Jesus understands that God waits for us beyond death.

This is the secret. Death has no power beyond its function. All things must die – creatures, flowers, and people. But, beyond death there is God.

Into your hands, Father, I commend my spirit.” Jesus prayed Psalm 31 at the moment of death. He knew that God would somehow catch him as his soul fell from his body. On that Good Friday – before the rock was rolled away and the tomb found empty – Jesus trusted the power of God over suffering and death.

Now, 2,000 years after the resurrection, you and I get to live in the light. We get to be people of hope because of Jesus. When death comes for someone we love or for 150 strangers in the French Alps, we know that God has them. We know because of this story – the Passion of Jesus the Christ – the story that changed everything.

[i]The Rev. Dr. Gregory Collins, OSB Meeting Christ in His Mysteries