In the darkest of times, love prevails.


This sermon was offered by the
Rev. Cn. Beth Tjoflat at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church, Jacksonville, FL,
on the Second Sunday in Lent
(March 17, 2019).


Genesis 15:1-2, 17-18

Philippians 3:17-4:1
Luke 13:31-35
Psalm 27


May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable to you O Lord our strength and our redeemer.


In this morning’s Gospel from Luke,
Jesus does not mince words as
he calls out Herod and the Pharisees,
who pretend to come with good intentions.

His words “You tell that fox for me,
‘Listen, I am casting out demons and
performing cures’” indict Herod and the
Pharisees who are acting on his behalf.
Better to run Jesus out of town than
to have to deal with the whole mess.

This brief Gospel lesson is steeped in conflict –
an essential component of any abiding story.
Jerusalem – a city that is grounded in holiness –
is at the same time a city with an earned reputation
for killing those sent by God.

When Jesus speaks tenderly and longingly
of gathering the children of Jerusalem
as a hen gathers her brood under her wings,
he speaks with the love and care of a devoted mother.

When he is confronted with violence
— with certain death —
his response is love.

This past week has brought senseless violence
to the forefront of our concerns once again.
On the global stage, we learned with horror
of the massacre of 50 Muslims in New Zealand,
faithful people gunned down while at prayer.

This violence was perpetrated by a man
|steeped in extremist, racist ideology.
Our hearts are heavy.
It is tempting to shut down in the face of
one more display of evil and hate.

Closer to home, Sherry, a dear member of our
Church Without Walls community was killed
by her boyfriend.
Our community is visibly shaken.
Hopeful hearts are broken.

We had watched Sherry and walked with her
as she struggled with addiction,
as she struggled to find solid footing
for building a life.

I remember one Sunday, some months ago,
after another friend had died from an overdose,
Sherry came to see me.
“I don’t know if I can take any more of this,”
she told me.

I know Sherry is not alone in that sentiment.
I have heard it time and again.
I have felt it myself and
know that you have, too.

Church is meant to be a sanctuary –
a safe place.
With the help of the Holy Spirit,
we create a space that is strong enough and
resilient enough to hold all that affects us:
the challenges and struggles;
the pain and confusion;
our hurts and our regrets;
as well as our hopes and dreams
for renewal and transformation,
not just for ourselves
but for our world.

No matter how we do the math,
the answer is always, always love.
Jesus embraces and loves those who
in a heartbeat would kill him.
He sees beyond hate.
He sees beyond fear.

He knows and loves each and
every of us –
whether perpetrators or victims
or bystanders –
because he created us all.

When terrible things happen,
look for the love.
That is where you’ll find Jesus.

Yesterday I read a column written by
Molly Pascal, a member of the Tree of Life
synagogue – the Jewish congregation
in Pittsburgh that fell victim to a
hate crime less than six months ago.
Eleven congregants were killed.
Several others were wounded.

Molly wrote about the immediate outpouring
of support from the Muslim community.
More than $240,000 was raised in days
to help survivors and the families of victims.

Members of the Muslim community led a
peaceful patrol in the streets,
helping their Jewish brothers and sisters
feel safe enough to walk to worship in the
aftermath of that tragedy.

And that’s what we are – brothers and sisters.
The Jewish, Muslim and Christian faiths –
we all descend from Abraham.

As Christians, our mission is to show people Jesus.
We do that most palpably and most
effectively through love.

Several years ago, I visited a large Episcopal
church in downtown Boston.
Shortly after the Boston marathon, that
congregation did what some thought
was radical – they opened their basement,
so a nearby Muslim congregation could
meet and worship there;
they were desperate for a place to meet and pray
where they could feel safe.
This gesture was offered quietly,
without fanfare or publicity of any kind,
because that is what was needed.

It is this kind of “throw caution to the wind” love
that gives us the strength and courage to
move forward from difficult, even tragic, situations.

This is just as true for personal life events
as it is for happenings that affect the
wider community.

In her book Rising Strong, about how we find
the strength to get up after being knocked down
by life, social researcher Brene Brown said this:
“We move what we are learning
from our heads
to our hearts
through our hands.”

Here at St. Mary’s, we are writing a new story.
It gets messy sometimes, but it is
beautiful and holy.

We invite others to join us,
to live out the gospel through study,
prayer and worship that leads to
tangible action, caring for each other
and for those who are struggling.

My experience is that this kind of ministry
feeds us and blesses us in the best of times.

Yet when the going gets tough,
we having meaningful work to do.
We can lean into ministries, dedicated
to the lost and the forgotten.
This grounds us and anchors us.
As we work together, we discover and
remember that Jesus is alive.

We are assured that, even in the darkest of times,
love prevails.
Love prevails.



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A hard woman is good to find.


(Photo taken while hiking the Rockdale River Trail near Conyers, GA.)

The events of the day and the brutal culture we live in make my heart feel heavy and sad. What is played out in the media and in our communities and institutions makes me angry for what has been and what is and at the same time hopeful for what can be. I pray for anyone who has felt dismissed or silenced in any way, who has been trampled or trod upon by unchecked power.

My mother was a brilliant woman. She graduated summa cum laude from Duke University. She was also a product of her generation and of the South.  From an early age I learned, often just from her posture or expression, that women who spoke up for themselves or fought for themselves were diminished in some way. It felt nearly as punitive and costly as being a “loose” woman.

I remember watching as a female member of our congregation – a friend’s mother and a prominent lawyer’s wife – was shunned when she took a stand for equality for women. That’s when I heard my mother say under her breath: “She’s so hard.” The stakes seemed so high that I felt terrified for this woman. I watched as she stood tall and made her way to the communion rail with dignity, while people looked on with dismay. I was in awe of her courage and fierce determination.

By the time I was 29, I sat across from my mother in a local restaurant. I was in the scary and exhilarating process of making significant life changes. Newly divorced, I would be moving across the country to pursue my dream of being a writer. It felt incredibly risky. The costs were high. If not for the adrenalin-infused excitement of pursuing a dream, I likely would have succumbed to self-doubt, to shame, to the real or imagined judgements of other more restrained and reasonable folks.

Before we ordered, my mother lowered her menu and caught my gaze with a directness that was unsettling. “I’d give anything if I’d done at your age what you are doing now.” She spoke quietly but clearly.  And then she raised her menu back up and said no more about it. It was a quick but powerful gift, an assurance that honoring myself was not just important but essential. My mother helped me gather a sense of myself that perhaps eluded her. My prayer, now that she’s gone, is that she too found a semblance of healing and wholeness in that moment.

Since that time, my mother’s words “she’s so hard” have been reframed from a place of judgement (harsh, severe, unfriendly) to one of strength and resilience. Being a hard woman today requires perseverance and effort. It requires persistence and the companionship of other human beings who can identify with being dismissed or diminished for simply honoring who they are.

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“I don’t recall asking.”

My friend Spencer taught me something invaluable. Whenever someone would ask for his listening ear, he would stop them at the beginning and say: “Did you want feedback, or did you just want me to listen?”

I have stolen this from my friend and find that 80-90 percent of the time, folks just want me to listen, without judgement or advice-giving. This shouldn’t surprise me.

In my experience as a chaplain and spiritual director, this is the gift folks crave so deeply, especially in our culture of constant feedback.  I appreciate so much the chance to let you know what I need.

Unfortunately, too often lately I have encountered people who feel the need to tell me what they think I should do or, even more jarring, who they think I am. As a priest of 2 congregations and a single-parent of a very complex, mostly delightful but not infrequently challenging 7-year-old boy, I make this simple request: Please stop. What you perhaps mean to be helpful actually hurts.

Stop with assuming that you have a clue about what my motives are, what I may be thinking, or what my son may need. Especially if you have never had so much as a cup of coffee with me. Or with my child. Same goes if you have never attended a worship service with us. Or walked alongside me in my work, when I am tending a victim of domestic abuse or one struggling with addiction. Or when I’ve had the holy privilege to hear a murder confession. Please stop insisting I be in my office, behind my desk, always at the ready for you to pop in and give me your 2 cents worth. It’s not that I don’t appreciate a visit. But there may be more pressing work to be done.

On the other hand, if you feel called to reach out, if you are looking for a patient, nonjudgmental presence, I may be your gal.

I’m sorry if my “tone” seems too caustic or harsh for your liking. Thank you for indulging my venting – I’ve been carrying this for a while.   Pray for me and forgive me if that is what is indicated for your spiritual health and the well being of our relationship. We are all human beings in need of love and grace. No exceptions here.

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Rough edges and grace.

(photo taken at Our Little Roses home in Honduras.)

(photo taken at Our Little Roses home in Honduras.)

Today was a glorious day at Church Without Walls. The sun shone brightly, warming us up just enough after a chilly night. We had blankets and other items to share thanks to the generosity of our national church. Dear friends provided lunch and a delicious cake to enjoy. We had visitors from as far as Keystone Heights.

When I arrived to set up, I was tired and short-tempered. One of my failings is overwork and, if I am not intentional about it, I overextend. Loading a 6-foot table, flats of water and about 150 pounds of blankets into the jalopy didn’t help. This morning we had a skeleton crew as several regular helpers were away tending to family and other business. Nonetheless, I reminded myself that things always come together, and any “void” in staffing often allows space for others. To my delight a regular congregant, who usually stays on the edge of things, stepped up and ran the Java Jalopy coffee service. Others took care of set-up and clean up.

As we were getting ready for church, two of our folks got in a loud “discussion,” about what I do not know. With less restraint than usual I inserted myself loudly: “This is church!” There were some opinions voiced back-and-forth about who started it. “Makes no difference to me,” I said. “This is church, and we aren’t having this today. That is more than I can handle.” I am not sure I would be so quick next time but the correction seemed to silence the argument and divert the congregants to other business.

Worship was meaningful, with prayers voiced throughout the congregation. At the end of the service, we prayed for four birthday folks and sang happy birthday to “all y’all.” Lunch and cake went relatively smoothly. But then came time to share blankets. I asked those who were housed to allow those sleeping outside to receive first, to make sure they would be covered. During this messy and somewhat chaotic process one of our homeless folks, who had just received a blanket, started fussing at someone who was in line: “You aren’t homeless. That’s not right.” Back and forth they went. I interjected: “We’ll have enough, don’t worry.” The homeless friend kept shouting, and I shouted back: “Let’s not do this!”

As he kept up with the fussing, something told me to go to him, to put an arm around him. As I did, he leaned against me and began to weep. “I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry,” he repeated as big tears landed on his slice of cake. “Its okay,” I told him. He voiced shame and sadness and grief. We found a shady spot where we could sit. He shared from his heart as he gave voice to the demons that plagued him. We prayed and laughed and shared. I am so grateful I stopped fussing long enough to listen to what was beneath the argumentativeness.

This is privilege in its highest form: to walk with others who are wounded and longing for connection just like me. This encounter was a gift. It taught me that, when I am short-tempered, I might go to place of curiosity rather than shame. It reminded me to listen to my heart and make room for untended needs.

Pause. Take a breath. Look around. Teachers are everywhere and grace abounds.

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Coming together.

(Photo of beautiful plant gifted to me last year by my young friend Dorothy)

(Photo of beautiful plant gifted to me last year by my young friend Dorothy)

In the aftermath of the mass shooting in Orlando (and every other recent and incomprehensible tragedy), it is hard to feel anything other than profound sadness. I want to make room for this overwhelming sense of grief and yet I worry about lapsing into a place of deep despair.

This is not unlike feelings that arose in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. That day forced us to make room for possibilities that we had successfully avoided. It helps me now to recall how my immediate community moved in the wake of that shock and loss.

Instinctively we knew what to do, and we know now. Late that afternoon the neighborhood 12-step meeting, which usually had 30 attendees, swelled to 70 or more. This continued day after day as we felt the visceral need to circle the wagons, to be with others, to remember that we need not walk alone. We must reach out to community, whether they be coworkers, neighbors or whomever we find ourselves in proximity to. We must not walk alone.

As we came together at dusk on 9/11, no one thought about political leanings, sexual orientation or social standing. All potential barriers fell away. We were human beings on a shared journey. Human beings affirmed, comforted and encouraged by the simple act of coming together.

Eternal God, in whose perfect kingdom no sword is drawn
but the sword of righteousness, no strength known but the
strength of love: So mightily spread abroad your Spirit, that
all peoples may be gathered under the banner of the Prince of
Peace, as children of one Father; to whom be dominion and
glory, now and for ever. Amen. (Book of Common Prayer, p 815)

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Lasting impressions.

(Photo taken while hiking the Rockdale River Trail near Conyers, GA.)

(Photo taken while hiking the Rockdale River Trail near Conyers, GA.)

This week I was blessed to spend time with folks from a wide range of backgrounds, cultures and life experiences. In spite of our differences, we share a common desire to live in the life-giving flow of the One who created us all and to have a positive impact on the world around us.

I am grateful to share in the company of such humble and generous folk, to experience simple encounters that don’t seem like much at first glance but that work their way into the psyche, into the soul, to change us forever.

This afternoon I had such an experience, finding myself with an hour or so to share a meal with three colleagues, two known to me and one new. We each shared bits and pieces of our lives and vocational longings and, in the course of the hour, the seemingly disparate threads of our lives were woven together to create colorful strands of connection and identification. I feel rich in friendship and blessed to so quickly find common ground.

Then, as seamlessly as we gathered, we disbanded to find our flights. I find myself not only encouraged in the work but also changed for the better, and I know I am in good company.

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A thing of beauty.

(With my dear friends Darlene and Natalie in North Carolina)

(With my dear friends Darlene and Natalie in North Carolina)

The past few months have been a time of rich movement in my life. I have been engaged on multiple levels, which would not be possible without a willingness to let go. The focus that this season requires has meant that my blogging has been on the back burner. Even now, I have little to say but want to stretch into the realm of connection.

Last month some dear friends took me white water rafting – an experience that can be a metaphor for my journey of late. It has been exhilarating and enlivening, something akin to taking in fresh air and warm sunshine. It has also been nerve-wracking to face what at times has seemed impossible. My boat has taken on water and the paddling has grown awkward as I try to detect the sure cadence and flow of the river, as I pull against churning water. But good friends and wise guides have been in the raft with me all along the way, and they are here still.

As I pause on the riverbank and rest a spell, a deep gratitude is welling inside me. It is a good thing to make room for new experiences, new adventures. It is a good thing to be alive. It is a thing of beauty.

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Marked by love.

Ashes2goToday many of us will participate in Ash Wednesday services, offering ourselves – our brokenness and failure and our highest hopes — to the One who created us all. Today we enter the penitential and reflective season of Lent.

Church Without Walls will offer ashes and prayer as part of our Wednesday Morning Prayer and Coffee Fellowship outside Clara White Mission. At midday we will take to the streets offering “ashes to go” for downtown folks out and about over the lunch hour.

It is a time to remember that we are dust and to dust we shall return. But, in the words of poet Jan Richardson it is also a time to consider “what the Holy One can do with dust.” It is a time of surrender – and at the heart of our surrender is hope for the future.

God calls us again and again to turn and offer all that we have and all that we are to the possibility of new life. It is also a call to and affirmation of community. Dust gets blown by the wind of the Spirit and soon we cannot say that is mine and this is yours. The best we can do with dust is to acknowledge this is ours and all belongs to God.

I long to see what God dreams, to see what he will do with us, with dust.

So let us be marked
not for sorrow.
Let us be marked
not for shame.
Let us be marked not
for false humility
or for thinking
we are less
than we are

but for claiming
what God can do
within the dust,
within the dirt,
within the stuff
of which the world
is made
and the stars that blaze
in our bones
and the galaxies that spiral
inside the smudge
we bear.

–excerpted from the Jan Richardson’s poem “Blessing the Dust” in Circle of Grace (p 90)

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Young dreams.

(Drawing shared with permission from Beth Knowles on behalf of the young artist Chase.)

(Drawing shared with permission from Beth Knowles on behalf of the young artist Chase.)

This beautiful picture was created by the son of a friend and former colleague. His inspired interpretation of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech captures the best of humanity and speaks to the best in each one of us.

What if we were to look out for our neighbors in all things? What would it mean to know that our neighbors are concerned for our well being?

Being single for most of my adult life, I have some sense of what it means to go it alone. And, yet, despite my own best efforts at self-sufficiency, I have been touched and moved by the generosity of not just friends and neighbors but also strangers. Friends who checked in on me after surgery, who brought me meals, who ran errands, who took the time to sit with me. Strangers who offered a kind word, who helped carry a load, who bothered to smile and look me in the eye.

This drawing captures an often-illusive phenomenon: connection. Connection is something each of us is wired for, something each of us craves. Yet the thought of it can be unsettling, because it causes us to confront our own vulnerability.

Yesterday, at our diocesan convention, I sat at lunch with Bishop Henderson, who recently visited Church Without Walls, to worship with us and confirm some of our congregants. He told me he’d never experienced anything like it. “Sure,” he said, “I’ve participated in feeding programs and the like. But there was always a table between me and the people.” What he described was the uncomfortability and wonder of simply being with the other, without distraction, without some activity or barrier to hide behind.

At the end of his time with our congregation, Bishop Henderson joined with us as we took a church photo. After it was published someone remarked, “Shouldn’t you have had the bishop up front?” In the photo Bishop Henderson is surrounded by the crowd, embraced by the people (you’d have to look close to spot his purple shirt). By freely losing himself in our midst, he connects with us and we connect with him – each of us a child of the One who never stops dreaming for the good of all.

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From expectation to wonder.

(Photo of my first real tree in years)

(Photo of my first real tree in years)

This year I have approached the holidays by deciding to take pleasure in small things. By moving from a place of expectation to a place of wonder.

We talk a lot at Church Without Walls about how, while there is much to be joyful about, this can be a difficult time of year for many. Some are dealing with tremendous loss – the death of dreams or loved ones. Others are facing unexpected, life-changing illness. And many others are feeling shell-shocked by the speed and complexity of catastrophic world events, of inexplicable tragedy in our midst.

Life is full of disappointment; that is a given. Few of us have to look hard to find it. But, in the midst of heartache, there is always the unrelenting promise of light breaking in, no matter how dark the night may seem.

My discipline this Advent season has been to move from a place of expectation to a place of wonder, looking for joy and pleasure in small things: putting up a tree in my home for the first time in years; making time for a relaxed visit with a friend; or setting aside time to get reacquainted with myself in present time, looking for those neglected or abandoned parts of myself that are yearning for acknowledgment.

With open hands it becomes possible to receive the Christmas miracle, whatever form it might take: running into a dear friend I rarely see in the local Walgreens and basking in a few moments of sharing; being able to visit and pray with one of our congregants the night before major surgery; or experiencing the people closest to me in new and wonderful ways.

I don’t do well when things get too loud or too demanding. I don’t do well when I place too high expectations on others or on myself. When I experience life getting to be too much, I remind myself: Keep it small. Keep it simple. Drink in the wonder of it all.

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