Wailing wall.

PrayerWallA 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.

Posted in Christianity, community, compassion, Diocese of Florida, Episcopal church, faith, Grace, holy, hunger, love, peace, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

“We’re starving.”

GoodFridayThese 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.

The number of our neighbors facing food insecurity is growing rapidly in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic. You can read more about that here: https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/the-next-threat-hunger-in-america/2020/04/02/cde04dfa-7525-11ea-a9bd-9f8b593300d0_story.html or here: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/apr/02/us-food-banks-coronavirus-demand-unemployment

You can make a gift to St. Mary’s food pantry here: St. Mary’s.

Posted in 12-step spirituality, community, compassion, Diocese of Florida, Grace, holy, hunger, Interfaith, love, Ministry, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Believe in the light.

ShaySunrise

(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.

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Compassion crucifies fear.

Palms

God makes that possible.

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

Posted in 12-step spirituality, Christianity, community, compassion, Diocese of Florida, Grace, hunger, love, Recovery, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Come from the four winds, O breath.

seascapeThis morning the prophet Ezekiel reminds us that God is with us, that we can call on the One who created everything that is, even when it may seem, at moments at least, that we are left alone to face our peril.

The pressing needs of the world – of our physical reality – cause us to look for solutions all around us. We want to be able to forage and obtain what we need, whether in the form of household supplies found in the back corner of a cabinet or a perfectly timed visit to the grocery or by scouring to find a church food pantry that, by grace, has managed to remain stocked and open, at least for today.

When Jesus finally comes to Bethany – after the death and burial of Lazarus – his action is too late in eyes of Martha.  But it is for times such as these that he is able to enter into our lives most profoundly. He may not restore our circumstances, routines or bank accounts just as we’d like them to be, but he will guide us through this challenging time of uncertainly in a way that, as our 12-step friends say, is indeed miraculous.

Already we see kindness and welcome in a way that is inspiring. When nurses and doctors report for duty with limited protective gear, when patients seek out Covid-19 testing or care for other critical needs, no one is concerned about politics or religion or bank accounts.  The focus is on doing the best next right thing.

In today’s Gospel reading (John 11:1-45), after Lazarus’s death, some of the people said “‘Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man kept this man from dying?’”

The expectation that people of faith must or will be rendered invulnerable flies in the face of the stories of Holy Scripture.  Our naked vulnerability is the birth place of the divine gift of compassion.  Perhaps Christ is creating a space for a reign of true compassion in a country and world that often have been dominated by instincts in collision, by the visceral desire for more power, money or special privilege. “I’ll share mightily with my neighbor once I make sure I get mine, once I make sure I have enough.”  Those of us who have found ourselves caught up in this game at one time or another know that, left to our own devices, there is never enough.

God’s compassion is intended for all. In God’s perfect economy, no one gets left behind or brushed aside as expendable.

There is nothing wrong with reaching out and tending our own needs and sense of loss and pain. In fact, it is imperative. We must “place the oxygen masks on ourselves first.”  But as that sense of breath and flow is restored (just for today), let us set our sights on our neighbors (wisely defined as “everyone in the whole wide world,” by my 9-year old son), on the most good for the most people. Let us set our sights on love – the very heart of compassion. For it is the one thing that increases in our lives when we share it.

Our world as we know it is being changed. It may seem that “‘Our bones have dried up, and our hope is lost.’” But God will bring us back, not to our vision of the world, but to his. Already God is sharing his breath through the four winds, so that the best of humanity may rise up and walk together.

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Slow down, you move too fast.

This morning I went to gas up the car then stop by the grocery. “They may not have what we want but I’m sure we can find something useful,” I told my son.

What I noticed as we ambled up and down the aisles was that folks for the most part had settled down. They were calm and courteous. Shelves were empty, there were no paper products or cleaning wipes, no frozen veggies or ground beef. Plenty of milk, though, and eggs and cheese. Gone was the frantic energy of a few days ago. I thanked the cashier for being there and she appreciated the acknowledgement.

When we got home, I offered to take a walk with my son. He joined me for a bit, running sprints ahead of me, then made his way back to our yard, sitting across the driveway from his pal Andrew, as they connected across at least 6 feet of space. Somehow they had managed to make peace at last with “no playdates until Coronavirus is over,” instead finding a way to be together. “Social distancing” may have put physical distance between them, but it did not put the kabosh on much needed together time.

As I continued to walk up and down the street, taking in the sunshine, the lyrics from Simon and Garfunkel’s 59th Street Bridge song came to me. My mood recalibrated. I felt a sense of peace and promise that we can do this thing. God will bring good out of this pandemic. Good in countless acts of kindness, selflessness and consideration for others. In practicing kindness to ourselves. This is not a time to be productive in the way the world measures productivity. It is a time to be in the moment, to take in the beauty of the world.

Slow down, you move too fast
You got to make the morning last
Just kicking down the cobblestones
Looking for fun and feeling groovy
Ba da-da da-da da-da, feeling groovy

Hello lamppost, what’cha knowing
I’ve come to watch your flowers growin’
Ain’t you got no rhymes for me?
Doo-ait-n-doo-doo, feeling groovy
Ba da-da da-da da-da, feeling groovy

I got no deeds to do, no promises to keep
I’m dappled and drowsy and ready to sleep
Let the morningtime drop all its petals on me
Life, I love you, all is groovy

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I know you.

Not too long ago, I was walking down a street in the historic section of St. Augustine.  I had been to a church there to witness a friend make his vows as a Companion of St. Francis.

Suddenly an urgent hello entered my space so clearly that I knew it was for me: “I know you!” The voice came from behind me, to my left.


I looked over to see a man, tanned with long gray hair pulled back, frayed cutoffs and a tank top. He was sitting on the edge of a planter, eating from a takeout container.  His eyes shown with light.


I stepped over and took his hand. “And I know you. You’re Tree.”  It meant something that I recalled his name.

Actually, he is one special person whom I would find hard to forget. A Native American friend from the street, who drops into Church Without Walls only rarely on Sunday, but who makes a habit of joining us at our Wednesday coffee fellowship when he is in downtown Jacksonville for medical appointments.


This beautiful man made my day. His presence and kind spirit have done more for me than I could ever do for him.


We live in wild, disconcerting times.  It’s easy to get discouraged and lose hope.

It is in these seemingly chance encounters that we can find hope and new energy to keep on keeping on.


These m
oments of grace fill us with the joy of being known by another. And we have the opportunity, if we will pause to take it, to know those in our midst.

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A new Jerusalem.

CWWcommunion

The following sermon was offered at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church on Sunday, May 19, 2019.

 

Fifth Sunday of Easter

Acts 11:1-18
Revelation 21:1-6
John 13:31-35
Psalm 148

 

This morning I want to read a passage to you

from the book City of God, written by Sara Miles.

Sara is a lay woman who had a conversion

experience when she received communion

at an Episcopal church.

 

As she returned to her seat,

the Spirit spoke to her very clearly:

“Feed my people.”

 

Sara has founded a dozen or more

food ministries in Northern California.

 

She writes: “While God is remarkably

flexible about showing up anywhere –

in the desert, in a manger, in a burning bush,

or in a prison cell – the eyes of my own faith

see the most on urban streets.

For me, paradise is a garden,

but heaven is a city.


Though prophets tend to describe the

heavenly city with fantasy-Barbie imagery

that leans heavily on golden robes,

sparkling fountains, and precious stones,

the actual urban place I’ve lived in for

more than twenty years –

the Mission District of San Francisco –

has changed my view of heaven.

 

I begin to see how the new Jerusalem

might look less like a pious Disneyland

and more like – well, like the “New Jerusalem” bodega

run by Syrian Christians that I trudge past

on my way to work, its dingy pink front

plastered over with Miller beer signs,

its enthusiastic, unshaven owner waving

and smiling each new day as he opens the door

to welcome in a straggling, polyglot parade of

school kids, nurses, winos and day laborers.


I begin to see that city-ness,

not necessarily prettiness,

might be a characteristic sign of heaven.

The city of God is a place so mixed,

so layered, and apparently impure

that it proclaims a love vaster than

humans can come up with on their own.

 

A place as surprising and generous as the sheet

of formerly unclean food in the Book of Acts

that turns Peter from heaven’s gatekeeper

into its dazzled servant.

This is not unlike our ministry here in the

midst of community, in a neighborhood

that is becoming increasingly diverse.

It speaks to the divine wisdom of welcoming

everyone, regardless of social status,

race, intellectual ability or creed.

 

In God’s economy there is room for

all of creation, there is room for all of

his created beings.

`What God has made clean,

you must not call profane.’

What God has created,

you must not call godless.

 

With God’s grace we make room in

our hearts and our lives for whatever

and whomever he sends our way.

 

When the busy-ness of our “messy Jesus business”

begins to take over, we must be prepared to remind

one another and call one another to that place

of “wild inefficiency,” making room for the Spirit

to do her work of healing and grace.

 

We preach the gospel through love.

 

Last week we explored the “wildly inefficient”

model of compassion at work in L’arche

communities around the world,

communal living partnerships that

bring together the intellectually disabled with

those longing to find connection and community.

 

We find our true and best selves in the other.

We encounter the living Christ in the

face of our neighbors.

 

Here at St. Mary’s it is easy to

get caught up in the urgency of

all the work that needs to be done.

 

Grounds and gardens need

tending and care.

Repairs must be done.

Bills must be paid.

Food must be picked up from

grocery partners.

Pantry shelves must be stocked

and restocked.

 

Volunteers are trained and

bring leadership to a perpetual cycle

of food-in and food-out.

Those coming for groceries must be greeted,

signed in and directed.

 

This week one of our volunteers

leaned into that model of

“wildly inefficient compassion.”

She was the only volunteer available for

handling reception and check-in

for pantry friends coming for food.

 

It was the kind of morning where I’d be

tempted to move them through quickly,

signed up, signed in, pertinent data recorded.

The word “Next!” could easily replace a

genuine welcome, an “inefficient” but much

needed inquiry.

 

In the midst of busy-ness, this volunteer

sensed a need for pastoral care.

She made space for tending a hurting child of God.

 

Our volunteer learned that this

first-time pantry visitor was experiencing

tremendous grief from the recent loss not only

of her husband but also of a grandchild,

who died at birth.

These losses came within weeks of each other.

 

As the matriarch of her family, our new friend

felt great pressure to exhibit strength,

to be the “rock” for her family in the midst

of loss and tragedy.

 

If that weren’t enough, she became the victim of

a landlord scam when she sought to downsize

her home, adjusting to life without her husband.

 

Our front desk volunteer came to me.

“I think I have one who would benefit

from a few moments of your time.”

 

It was a humbling privilege to listen

to her pour her heart out as she shared

her journey if the past several weeks.

“I could use a hug,” she said as

we prepared to pray.

 

Her tears wet my sleeve and reminded me

for some time after her departure of

what a holy gift she brought.

I thanked her for coming, for reminding

me of what is most important.

For being willing to share her pain

with someone she had only just met.

 

Right now our new friend she is staying

at a local shelter where I used to spend

several hours each week,

being available to listen to clients or staff.

The busy-ness and legitimate demands of

our growing ministry have gotten in the way

of that space.

 

Still, I sense the Spirit at work and know

that a long-held dream of trained spiritual

companions will be realized.

Our vision of St. Mary’s includes

providing training and support to those

called to engage in such ministry,

not just on our campus but in our streets and

in our shelters.

 

I feel energized — and hope that you do too –

to do the work of creating the infrastructure and

space to allow this to come into being.

This summer we will welcome 2 seminarians

who will gain hands-on experience in this

ministry of compassionate presence.

 

In addition, we are in conversation with the diocese

to offer 4-day residential training experiences

for deacons-in-training and lay persons who

may sense a call to this form of ministry.

 

There is no substitute for sticking

your toe in the water, to bring clarity

to a sense of calling.

Frankly I don’t know how else to do it.

 

As our friend Barbara Brown Taylor writes

in her book Finding an Altar in the World:

 

“My life depends on becoming

more fully human, trusting that there is

no way to God apart from real life

 in the real world.”

 

Whether your work is here in the

food ministry or in other places

along the highways and by-ways,

know that God dwells with you.

You are his hands and feet,

creating a new Jerusalem —

a city of God marked by

acts of love.

Amen.

 

 

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Alleluia! The unexpected happens.

ShaySunrise

(Photo taken by my good friend Bill Shay in Fernandina Beach, FL)

 

 

 

 

 

The Rev. Cn. Beth Tjoflat offered
this sermon at St. Mary’s
Episcopal Church
(Jacksonville, FL)
on Sunday, April 21, 2019.

 

 

Feast of the Resurrection
Isaiah 65:17-25
Acts 10:34-43
Luke 24:1-12
Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24

 

 

 

 

 

Alleluia, Christ is risen!

After our season of Lent,

those Easter alleluias are like a cool

glass of water on a hot day.

 

I want to share a story from this past Thursday –

Maundy Thursday – when we lived into

Jesus’ example of servanthood as

we gathered in the parking lot of

St. Philip’s Church to wash one another’s feet.

Some 200 people participated in this event.

 

I had the privilege of washing the feet of

a gentleman known to our community.

After we chatted a bit, he decided that

he would have his feet washed.

 

He took off his shoes and socks and placed

his feet in the bin of soft, warm water

as I took a seat across from him.

 

When I began moving water over his feet and

ankles, he became quiet and still.

I looked up to find him, wiping his eyes.

“Forgive me for being emotional,” he said.

“I was certainly not expecting this.

That you would do this for me…” he said,

as his voice trailed off.

 

I held my hands out in front of me, level.

“We are all the same, no one higher than the other.”

He nodded in agreement.

 

Even as we went on to chat about family,

about Easter traditions,

he periodically shook his head and

offered the same refrain: “I was not expecting this.”

“I’m going to tell my children about this,” he said,

as he rose to leave.

He went home, amazed at what had happened.

 

The prophet Isaiah promises a new

heaven and a new earth.

Where we build houses and live in them.

Where all people have what they need

to live healthy, abundant lives,

well into old age.

Don’t we love these reassuring promises?

 

But first, there is the matter of the tomb.

The women came to the tomb,

in the darkest part of the morning.

They simply wanted to prepare Jesus’ body

with spices.

They were perplexed to find the stone

rolled away, the tomb empty except,

for discarded linens.

In another version of this Gospel,

they feared his body had been stolen.

 

Then two men in dazzling white appear:

“Why do you look for the living among the dead?
He is not here, he has risen.”

 

These angels remind the women of Jesus’ words,

predicting not only his death but

also his resurrection.

Their words helped the women make sense

of their experience.

 

Then they went quickly to tell the disciples

what they had found.

But no one dared believe this “idle tale.”

It was Peter – the one who first called Jesus Messiah –

who got up and ran to the tomb.

He saw the discarded linen cloths.

There was no sign of Jesus.

Peter went home amazed.

Even with his great faith in the divinity of Jesus,

this was not what he expected.

 

Rarely does life unfold in a way

that we might anticipate.

We need help making sense of our experience.

What is happening to me? we often wonder.

Where is God in all of this?

 

We may find ourselves, looking around,

hoping for signs of the living Christ.

We may find ourselves saying:

“Well, this is certainly not what I expected.”

 

The followers of Jesus get that.

He was not at all what they expected.

For he is a God who is willing not only

to enter into our suffering,

but to suffer himself,

even to the point of death on a cross –

one of the most brutal, merciless forms of

execution this cruel world could dream up.

 

It is so easy to become cynical when we look at

what is happening in our world today.

It can seem as if we have but two choices:

Either accept that the world is going to hell

in a handbasket or wear our faith

like a protective shield that we can hide behind,

soothing ourselves as we ignore all

that is happening around us.

 

Neither of those approaches can truly

satisfy or sustain us.

Certainly neither is sufficient for our

brothers and sisters in Sri Lanka,

struggling to respond to horrific bombings,

targeting churches this Easter morning.

More than 200 people are dead.

More than 500 are injured.

 

Even in the midst of that horror,

rest assured that the light of Christ

will be revealed as that community –

and the world community – come together

to tend the injured and support

all those who mourn.

 

Earlier this month, three predominantly

black churches in Louisiana were

burned to the ground –

a vicious, ignorant crime of hate.

Harry Richard, the pastor of one of those churches,

strives to make sense of the violence in this way:

“I think that God is using these moments

to bring us closer together as a world,

to make us realize that we are all connected

in some form or another.”

 

Christ is alive and he is the light of all people.

He is at work in our social institutions,

even in our political institutions,

and throughout all of creation.

And he is at work in you and me,

in our lives, in our relationships,

in our families and our work.

 

If we are honest we have to admit that

at times we are afraid of the light.

Given a choice, we’d prefer that certain things

remain hidden or be forgotten.

 

We lament the divisions that have risen up

in our world, in our country,

even in our churches and families.

At the same time, we are quick to

vilify the other, to make wrong those

with whom we disagree.

It is easier than looking at our own pettiness,

our own darkness.

 

What if, instead of condemning the other,

we could acknowledge our common ground

in weakness and failed efforts?

 

The power of sharing common experience

is foundational to 12-step programs.

Alcoholics or addicts, whose disease often

will not allow them to receive help,

experience a break-through when they hear

a story similar to their own.

Uttering the words “Me too” can mark

the beginning of a transformed life.

There is hope in finding we are not alone

or unique in our difficulties.

 

Jesus is a savior in whom we can trust,

not in spite of his suffering but because of it.

He suffered for us to and through the point of death,

and yet death did not overcome him.

 

My friends, there is no escaping the light.

It may look like darkness and death are winning,

But rest assured that the light of Christ shines

most brightly in the darkness.

 

I am so inspired and humbled by the work

we are doing here in community.

Your faithfulness and hands-on engagement

allow me to see the risen Christ daily.

 

This new heaven and new earth are

being built, one day at a time, through our connection

with one another, and with all who set foot

on this holy ground.

 

Even in the midst of suffering – our own and that

which we are privileged to witness –

we can rest assured that He is risen and

He walks among us still.

Amen.

 

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Woke by Jesus.

FootWashing

This sermon was offered at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Jacksonville, FL, on Sunday, April 7, 2019

Fifth Sunday in Lent
Isaiah 43:16-21
Philippians 3:4b-14
John 12:1-8
Psalm 126

 

May I speak in the name of God,
Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Our readings this morning are rich.

Isaiah and the Psalm speak of God’s promises.

He provides water in the wilderness.

He gives drink to those who are thirsty.

And those who have sowed with tears

will reap with joy.

 

In the letter to the Philippians,

Paul speaks of placing all of his

confidence in Christ.

Anything else – including his accomplishments,

his gifts and his privilege –

he counts as rubbish.

 

For those of us who have experienced a

high degree of security in life:

a nice place to live;

a loving family and community of friends;

meaningful work to do and success

in a chosen profession,

it can be challenging to let go of

our dependence on our ability to create

as our source of security.

 

Yet Paul understands that reliance on Jesus

is the heart of any true and abiding sense

of well-being.

He alone is the source by which we thrive.

 

In many Gospel stories, Jesus’ followers are slow

to grasp the reality of who he is and what

this means for their lives.

Remember earlier in the story of Lazarus,

when Mary sent word to Jesus to come

to Bethany because her brother was ill?

Jesus waits at least 4 days, making a

side trip to Judea first.

He tells his disciples that Lazarus is not ill

but sleeping.

“I am going there to awaken him.”

 

When at last he comes, it is Martha who

goes out to meet him, upset that

he missed the opportunity for healing.

She didn’t imagine in a million years

that Jesus would raise him up,

or free him from the tomb.

 

“I am the resurrection and the life,” Jesus tells her.

Raising Lazarus is the great sign Jesus’ followers

need to walk through the passion.

It is the great sign that sustains us

when we are overcome by darkness.

 

In today’s gospel, we find Lazarus

sitting at table with family and friends,

breaking bread with his cousin Jesus.

An ordinary scene on the heels of an

extraordinary event.

 

There is an intimacy in the way Jesus

interacts with those he meets,

whether they are strangers or

well known to him.

He is compassionate yet

doesn’t mince words.

His directness is both unsettling and also

strangely freeing.

 

Remember the Samaritan woman at the well?

Jesus is direct with her in such a way that

she freely acknowledges her many marriages.

She is not shamed by this encounter

but instead is set free.

In her conversation with Jesus,

she had nothing to hide behind,

no reason to pretend she was something more.

 

In our society, we are trained to work hard

to build up ourselves and our lives.

This may serve us for a while,

but, at some point, we need this scaffolding

to be stripped away.

We need to make room to find our true selves

and to honestly connect with and be seen

by others.

 

In today’s Gospel, Mary has seen Jesus in action

and she knows exactly who he is: the Messiah.

The Anointed One sent to make a way

home for all of us.

Jesus tells us she had purchased the

costly perfume made of nard,

anticipating the need to prepare him for burial.

She is motivated by love to pour this perfume

over him, while he is yet with them.

 

This beautiful, loving gesture

required vulnerability and risk.

Part of her must have wondered:

“Who am I to anoint my savior?

To caress his feet?”

 

About 20 years ago, a dear friend of mine,

Vincent O’Hara, was nearing the end of his life.

He had been hospitalized for a long time

for a degenerative illness and then,

through a mishap, was deprived of oxygen.

He was no longer conscious, his body kept alive

through feeding tubes and a respirator.

 

Vincent was a gifted counselor and fiercely

devoted friend.

He helped countless adolescents and young

people who struggled with various forms of addiction.

 

Deeply intuitive, he was a man of few words,

gifted at asking just the right question

at just the right time.

He was gentle yet disarmingly direct —

it was as if he stared into the depths of your soul.

His thick Irish brogue and wicked

sense of humor amplified his gifts.

 

I was living in California when I received

a call about his deteriorating condition.

On a trip home I had the chance to visit Vincent

for several hours over the course of a week.

I told him stories and sang to him.

I imagined that I could feel his spirit,

speaking to me (still with that Irish brogue).

 

One interaction will stay with me forever.

His dear friend Philip was at his bedside

when I arrived.

After we chatted a bit, Phillip took out a towel and

small basin and lathered up Vincent for a shave.

It was tender the way he cared for him.

 

Soon other friends wandered in,

and we began sharing Vincent stories.

After a time, Phillip took a towel and dried

Vincent’s freshly shaven face.

Then he looked up at me:

“Would you like to wash his hair?”

 

It felt surreal as I rose to go to the bedside,

to stand near Vincent’s head.

Tentative, at first, I wet his salt-and-pepper curls

and then applied the shampoo.

 

As I washed his hair I felt a level of connection

that is hard to describe.

It was as if I was suspended in this holy,

sacred moment, even as our friends

continued to chat in the background.

 

In some way, it was as if we were preparing

our friend for burial,

a loving acknowledgement of a life well-lived,

a nod to a great man who poured himself out for

young people, many of whom had been

rejected by their families.

 

Next Sunday – Palm Sunday –

we will commemorate the passion of Christ.

This will mark the beginning of Holy Week,

as we walk with Jesus through those final days

of betrayal, abandonment and death,

as we prepare to celebrate his

glorious resurrection.

 

Our work here at St. Mary’s is very much

about caring for the poor.

But I want to invite us to

bring our focus to Jesus –

to abandon ourselves to him

as the center of our lives –

as we conclude our Lenten observance.

 

On the night before Jesus was handed over,

he said: “Unless I wash you,

you have no part in me.”

 

I want to invite you to join us on

Thursday of Holy Week as we gather

in the parking lot of St. Phillips church.

We will share fellowship and prayer as

we wash one another’s feet –

and the feet of those who come —

whoever they might be and wherever they might

find themselves on the journey of faith.

 

This is a holy, sacred space.

It requires mutual vulnerability and

mutual trust.

It is a place where Jesus meets us.

And it is a place where we meet him

in the faces of both strangers and friends.

Amen.

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