After the Christmas break, my son began attending a new elementary school. The decision to move was not made lightly but transitions can be challenging. As we moved through the first few weeks, I prayed a lot and there were tears all around. And yet the staff of this school have been outstanding: supportive, compassionate, firm when necessary – but always loving. As my son and I found our way, I never once doubted that the teachers and staff had his best interest at heart. Within two weeks, we knew the head of security, the nurse, the counselor, the front office staff, the bus driver and the teachers: A village of support and care.
Just yesterday, I picked my son up early from school for an appointment. It was great to see Mr. B and Miss G. They shared my excitement at my son’s progress in adjusting to a new environment and routine. Just that morning he’d told me “I don’t go to school because I have to. I go because I want to.” I shared that with Mr. B, and he was filled with a palpable joy. He said “I love your words! I don’t know what it is, but I always love your words.”
I was surprised and grateful, considering that at the beginning of term, I was often frustrated by the time we got to school. Transitions are challenging and can bring up all sorts of fears and anxiety. Yet it is a relief to imagine that I had shared hopeful words even on those days. Not because I am some spiritual giant. But because I move in a community of the faithful. And the willingness of Mr. B and others to meet us where we are was life-giving to me – and in turn must have evoked a life-giving response from my tired, frazzled self.
Words always have an impact. They are informed by the company we keep and the community in which we move. My congregants and our outreach volunteers will attest that I am fond of saying “All ministry is mutual.” In these challenging times, we are all pandemic weary. This weariness, combined with an already highly divisive political and social environment, has resulted in a perfect storm. We needn’t look far to find folks who will welcome another with whom to commiserate. We needn’t look far to find platforms for venting frustration and anger, for tearing down rather than building up.
Still, if we are intentional about it, we need not look far to find dialogue that is uplifting, that generates a sense of welcome and care. That is life-giving.
Where and with whom we choose to spend our time and energy is important. There is a ripple effect, and it is mutual. Words do matter – and they are informed by our choices.
We enter a New Year with a sense of caution but also with great hope.
Recently someone asked me what title I might give the year 2020. The first thing that came to mind was “holy grit.” Many of us have learned in a new way what it means to dig deep to mine the dregs of our spiritual and emotional reserve. It is messy, exhausting, and at times desperate.
I have watched friends walk through painful events – things that, under more ordinary circumstances would be extremely trying: loss of loved ones to cancer, to COVID, to alcoholism and addiction. Loss of jobs, delay of opportunities that this time last year had been within reach. In June a man in our pantry line shared that he was next to be rehired at his company – just as soon as the pandemic is behind us.
The tragedies and challenges have at times seemed unjustly harsh and relentless, wreaking havoc, one after another. In moments of utter exhaustion and emotional depletion, when it can seem that the universe is unnecessarily cruel, how do I explain to someone in the midst of their suffering that God loves them? That Christ is with them?
At this writing I just learned of two friends who had to say goodbye to a cherished adult son, who was on life support following a sudden cardiac event. Life can be so cruel. Surrender is the only way through. To trust that somehow God will make a way for us. Somehow there will be enough to sustain us. An old friend long gone used to say “You always get what you need but never five minutes too soon. Never a nickel more.”
A stable with a manger: definitely not a nickel more for Mary, for Joseph. Yet they surrendered though the circumstances were not ideal, were not what they imagined or dreamed. When the angel Gabriel visited Mary, marking the beginning of a series of events that would forever change her life, forever change the world, she responded May it be with me according to your word. Even as she agreed, Mary surely could not imagine how all that she was told would come to pass, how events would unfold over the years. If she could, she may not have said yes.
We will always have questions, many unanswered at least in the ways we’d like them answered, especially when the heat is on. For me this requires daily – sometimes moment-by-moment – surrender. It requires digging deep, leaning on prayer and an inner reserve of grit to keep going, to focus on what I can affect rather than being victim to those things outside my control.
We must dare to believe that the light shines most brightly in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it. Sometimes, as we peer into the night of our lives, all we can find is the faintest glimmer, and sometimes only after much waiting, much seeking. But that glimmer is enough.
(Photo taken in Philadelphia in October at a retreat for those engaged in street ministry)
The following sermon was offered at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church, Jacksonville, Fl, on the Day of Pentecost, Sunday, May 31, 2020, by The Rev. Canon Beth Tjoflat.
Numbers 11:24-30 Psalm 104:25-35, 37 1 Corinthians 12:3b-13 John 20:19-23
May I speak in the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
We live in challenging times. Today we celebrate the gift of the Holy Spirit,
A gift that is intended to equip us for times and circumstances such as these.
Just over a week ago I was
chatting over the fence with some of
the people lining our block, waiting their turn
to receive groceries from the pantry.
When someone asked, “What’s new, pastor?”
I mentioned that the Feast of Pentecost was coming up.
Someone else responded “Penta-what? What’s that?”
Before I could respond, a man a few squares ahead of him,
one of our Church Without Walls regulars,
announced with conviction, “the Comforter!”
He was right.
Only the Holy Spirit is more than that.
It empowers us, gives us courage,
strength and wisdom.
This spirit within us gives us the very
power and authority of Jesus.
This is good news.
Still, this can also be perplexing and quite daunting to ponder. Even so, it is Good News!
This past week the pain and brokenness
in our communities spilled over with
the senseless killing on Monday of George Floyd –
and African American man who died when
an arresting officer knelt on his neck.
Floyd said he couldn’t breathe but none of
the officers looked out for him.
Somehow their duty to serve and protect
in their minds didn’t apply to this man.
Floyd lay on the pavement, handcuffed,
cruelly pinned, until he was dead.
Some weeks before that, another senseless killing
of a black man Ahmaud Arbery – just up
the highway from here, near Brunswick –
left us stunned.
We were grieved and confused to hear about
Breonna Taylor who was shot 8 times by
officers who entered her home with a no-knock search warrant. The man they were looking for had already
These tragic events seem to keep coming,
tearing at our collective souls – yet especially
they create a sense of fear and righteous anger
in people of color – people who suffer from
a breadth and depth of inequality
that seems to increase not decrease.
They suffer from the sin of racism that infects us all,
whether or not we are conscious of it,
whether or not we are willing to name it.
My friend Dee – a white woman and resident
of our Springfield neighborhood –
was interviewed at the protest yesterday
here in downtown Jacksonville.
She said she decided to participate after asking
some black friends what she could do to make
a small difference.
Dee’s advice to us: Be in the conversation.
Be willing to explore racism in our community.
Don’t let fear of saying the wrong thing
stop you from engaging in the dialogue.
These are wise words that deserve
our consideration and response as members
of the body of Christ.
They are a call to action.
We may feel powerless or unsure of what
we could possibly do.
The Holy Spirit is a gift given
for times such as these.
The power and authority of Jesus rests
upon each one of us.
These incidents — and the protests and unrest
manifesting in their wake — come to us as
we are reeling from a pandemic that
continues to unfold around us.
As followers of Jesus we are called to
make wise choices, to consider the vulnerable
and most at risk.
“Will I wear a mask?
Must I continue to practice social distancing?”
Until there is a vaccine widely available to all,
the answer for followers of Jesus is a resounding “Yes!”
Yes, these are challenging times.
Most people I speak with report that they
are have been riding an emotional rollercoaster since the onset of the pandemic. I know I have.
These waves of emotion are unpredictable
– they just come.
Along with this, many of us are experiencing a sense
of exhaustion –and wonder how this can be.
For some – especially those of us who still have jobs,
who have a roof over heads and food to eat –
there is a sense that we should just be grateful,
that we shouldn’t feel pain or fear.
And yet these are very human responses,
Responses for which we can make room.
As horrible as Covid-19 is, we know it is
not the only global pandemic we face.
A spirit of divisiveness continues to infect
our world and our country.
This is not unique to this moment in time
but it has been amplified of late.
It is amplified by so-called leaders,
by TV personalities on the left and the right
and by people who at the heart of it are
shot through with fear.
An internal fear that is not explored over time
will be covered over, only to be turned outward
We must pray and work toward instilling
the spirit of unity that has made
our country great in past times of crisis.
The Pentecost was made for times such as these.
Jesus breathes his spirit upon us so that
we can do the very hard work of loving our
neighbors as ourselves.
We can do the hard work of standing with
those who are oppressed and marginalized.
The challenging work of calling out racism
and prejudice when it visits our communities,
our homes and our hearts.
In recent weeks, during Morning Prayer
worship on Zoom, we have been praying a
moving litany for the pandemic.
In a prayer for frontline workers, we ask God to
give them strength beyond their strength,
to give them courage beyond their courage.
These same words we can pray for one another,
for our families, friends and the wider community.
We live in challenging times.
But we belong to the One who
always has our back.
He asks us to stand with those most vulnerable.
To have the backs of all our brothers and sisters.
As we confront our sin and the sin within
our community, within long-standing institutions,
we will no longer be stuck.
We will be set free.
In these turbulent and uncertain times,
Jesus gives us his peace.
He gives us the power and grace to love Him
with all our strength and might.
He gives us the power and grace to love
all our neighbors – to love them as ourselves.
If you would like to make a gift to support our outreach, you may do so online at: St. Mary’s.
In this week’s Gospel reading (John 10:1-10), we encounter Jesus, the good shepherd. And yet in this passage he does not refer to himself explicitly as the good shepherd. Instead he tells his followers, I am the gate. I am the gate for the sheep.
In my last post, I made peace with the wall that separates St. Mary’s from the rest of the world. This week I find myself thinking about our gate. As we continue operating our food pantry, we do so without opening our campus as we did in more carefree days. Instead, people distance themselves safely from one another as they wait along our sidewalk in a quick-moving line that brings them ultimately to the wrought iron gate that stands in front of our sanctuary steps.
I pray for all who are facing food insecurity, but especially this day for those who never in a million years thought they’d find themselves in a food line. It is a foreign experience for them, jarring, humbling, maybe even embarrassing. This kind of suffering may be new to them. It is also equalizing. We all are just “slobs on the bus, trying to find our way home.” Being forced to let go of the self-image we may have cherished, having the scaffolding of a life carefully constructed, suddenly damaged or ripped away — this is not something for which most of us would ever hope. But still, when it happens, when we find ourselves in an untenable position, we can find hope there. We can find something so sure and true, something that maybe we never knew we had, something we secretly feared would not be there to carry us.
In his beautiful Sabbath poem, Wendell Berry asks, Why must the gate be narrow? Because you cannot pass beyond it burdened. To come in among these trees you must leave behind the six days’ world, all of it, all of its plans and hopes. You must come without weapon or tool, alone, expecting nothing, remembering nothing, into the ease of sight, the brotherhood of eye and leaf.
At times I have used this poem as part of a graveside liturgy but find that it works for any kind of loss. It speaks so beautifully of the blessing of letting go, of the deep discovery that is possible only when we surrender everything we know and everything we are. Even then, we can’t know what the next step might look like. But if we can manage to let go – if we can at least loosen our grip — the gatekeeper will open the gate. And we will hear his voice. We will find our way.
If you are able to, please support food ministries in your community. If you would like to support St. Mary’s, you may do so here:Giving to St. Mary’s.
A decade ago I was blessed to visit the Holy Land. One of the most moving experiences for me was visiting the Western Wall in Jerusalem, an exposed section of a retaining wall built by Herod.
Jews and other pilgrims visit this place, often spending considerable time pondering the many trials and ordeals faced by the Jewish people throughout their history. Remembering and attesting to the faithfulness of God, people often tuck prayers into the wall.
As I waited and prayed, eventually a space opened. I moved forward, pressing my forehead and palm against the cool stone, my breath taken away by the holiness, by the vast history of this place. After a few moments, I tucked my paper into a tiny crevice, then backed away, bowing the knee of my heart, uncertain of my right to be there, to make such a request.
This week at our food pantry, more people than ever before came to us, seeking food for their bodies, but also longing for something more. Longing to hear a “yes.” To hear the words “I see you.” To hear that they belong, that in God’s perfect economy they still matter.
Several who came asked for prayer. As they shared their stories, each came with tears. Each brought frustration and anxiety. “When will this virus end? When will I be able to rest?” One I’ve known for years through our “church without walls” street church. She raised her hands toward heaven even as she wept, letting the prayer wash over her. Another woman was standing a few feet away, certain that God would touch her too, as she waited patiently nearby.
Later, shortly after the close of pantry, an elderly woman hobbled up to the fence, hoping to receive something. We paused our staff worship time, as a parcel of food was gathered quickly. When I stepped out of the sanctuary and into the light, wearing my white stole, our visitor called to me: “Mother! Mother, please.” When I approached, she knelt at the base of the fence, taking in my words and blessing like a desperately needed drink. When she looked up, she had the face of an angel. A small, pink azalea and the petals of a yellow-and-white iris were tucked under her cap, framing her face.
Shortly after she left, we reconvened to conclude our staff devotional. A colleague observed rather astutely: “That was the best part of the day.”
A few weeks ago, when the coronavirus forced us to lock our gate, I was troubled by the brick and wrought iron fence that now separates us from those who come. It seemed so cold, and unwelcoming. More than once, I felt the urge to grab a sledgehammer and knock it down.
But now, when I look out of the corner of my eye down the expanse of fence, I see something altogether different. I see prayers tucked carefully into place. Prayers covering basic unmet needs along with treasured hopes and dreams, ancient regrets nestled alongside deepest longings — all of it, suspended between the iron slats, resting there, waiting. All of it tended by Love, tended by the One who will never abandon us.
These words yesterday, coming from one of our “church without walls” congregants, chilled me to the bone. At great inconvenience and physical hardship for herself, she made her way from a camp site to our food pantry, located about one mile north of the heart of downtown. Her tattoo-mottled body was sweaty and shaking from the effort as she parked her bicycle, precariously laden with as much nonperishable food and bakery items as she could hope to carry.
She wept as she told me, “I’m scared. We’re all scared.” I told her how much I missed our community, now scattered. How heart-broken I feel to not be able to gather. She said that she is afraid that she will lose her beloved partner, who has medical issues, who remains encamped as she is too weak to travel to our food pantry.
When she asked for prayer, I invited her to follow me several feet down the fence for privacy. My heart ached that we weren’t able to embrace, that I wasn’t able to place a hand on her shoulder as we prayed. We connected as best we could with a brick-and-iron fence between us.
The deepening sense of powerlessness and grief can be overwhelming as the divide widens, sending the poor farther and farther to the edge of society, to the edge of existence.
As a priest, I feel like a traitor even as I struggle to reimagine this particular ministry. Some days, prayer is the best I can offer, though that prayer can feel hollow when what we crave is something incarnational, something “real.” A warm cup of coffee. A comforting meal shared among our gathered community. A time to reflect, to give voice to our experiences, to have the cry of our hearts heard by our sisters and brothers.
For sound reason, we cannot gather at this time, and the tools we use to reach those more fortunate – computers and internet – fall woefully short in connecting with those less fortunate, especially when it comes to those who are unhoused. I post prayers and messages, knowing only a handful will be able to access them. It is not a matter of not being tech savvy. The libraries – a vital lifeline of daily life — are closed, cut off by a pandemic.
When this dear one cried to me, “We’re starving,” I flashed on Jesus on the cross, uttering the words “I thirst,” before declaring that “It is finished.” My friend’s suffering – the suffering of this beloved community – is known intimately by Jesus. I know that he hangs with them in this trying time just as he remains with us all. His presence may seem hidden or at times cruelly obscured, but he is with us. I cannot solve my friend’s suffering. I am powerless to fix these urgent days we find ourselves in, powerless to prevent the many life adjustments that are sure to come. I simply pray to find a way to be present with these precious ones, to be present with those in our midst. To find Christ not in some longed-for-yet-out-of-our-grasp future, but in the here and now. For it is in this present time that we must find the One who suffered and died for us. The One who promised never to leave.
(Photo taken by my good friend Bill Shay in Fernandina Beach, FL)
In today’s Gospel reading (John 12:20-36), Jesus told his disciples: “Believe in the light so that you may become children of light.” Jesus spoke these words at a time when his own soul was troubled. He understood what was to come – the suffering that was about to unfold, paving the way for the salvation of the world.
As we find a way to live in the midst of a global pandemic, we journey into a Holy Week unlike any other we have experienced in our lifetimes. Jesus’ words and experience become more relevant, more palpable than ever before. Wherever we may find ourselves — disrupted lives and obliterated routines — our expectations have been altered. We must walk in new ways – sometimes with strength, sometimes with resistance and anger — and at moments stumbling gloriously as we strive to do the next right thing while accommodating grief and anxiety.
We must give ourselves and those around us a measure of grace. We have no point of reference for what we are experiencing. Beyond listening to sound medical advice and careful social practices that honor the welfare of the entire community, we are reinventing how to live our lives, one day at a time.
We must choose to walk in the light. We must choose to walk with the One who created us all and to trust in the light that casts out darkness. He is with each one of us: the strong, the healthy, the resilient in our midst — and with those who are suffering, those who risk their lives to care for the sick, to put food on the table. And he is at the bedside of those who are dying.
We must choose to be children of light. For the light which came into the world – the one true Light – can never be extinguished and will never forsake us.
We begin our Palm Sunday, singing Hosanna, as Jesus rides into Jerusalem, bringing hope as a compassionate king, a merciful gracious leader who cares for all people, even and especially those who find themselves on the fringes of society: the poor, the disabled, the sick, the prisoner, the homeless, the vulnerable, the alien.
Quickly, though, our readings from Matthew usher us swiftly from a triumphant entry promising a new King to Jesus — suddenly vilified, unjustly criminalized — as he is swept toward his death, even as he is declared guilty of nothing. A colleague astutely observed these were a people hungry for new leadership, actively committed to the welfare of all people. They longed for Jesus – healer, truth-teller, gatherer of all — from those in positions of authority to those on the very edges of life, those who might be deemed “non-essential,” or even disposable. They longed for Jesus just as we do.
Finding ourselves in the midst of a global pandemic is jarring, terrifying, even as we wake each day to face much that is unknown, much that is uncertain. We must find ways to not give ourselves over to the fear even as we honestly acknowledge it.
I have the privilege of working in a food ministry. Each day, when those who come (many seeking food assistance for the first time) respectfully line up according to colorful sidewalk tape that makes social distancing a little clearer, I am struck by the relief and gratitude of so many. This is important work. It is Gospel work. But, even more, it is work that casts out that creeping sense of fear. Our 12-steppers know that being of service is the secret to a happy life. It abates that very understandable fear: “What will become of me and my family as the days, weeks and months go by?”
Just for today, each of us can choose to practice compassion. One of the greatest acts of compassion is to stay home. And, if we must go out for essentials or because we work providing an essential service, let’s practice social distancing. Let’s make masks and wear them. Let’s practice compassion by doing the next right thing for the good of our communities, for the good of all people.
Acts of compassion – no matter how slight – cast out fear. Because they are rooted in God. Because they are rooted in love.
If you would like to make a gift to help our food pantry serve rapidly growing numbers of hungry people, you may do so here:St. Mary’s food pantry