“Who are we?”

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

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

This sermon was preached this morning at Church of Our Saviour, Jacksonville, FL
Christ the King Sunday
2 Samuel 23:1-7; Psalm 93; Rev 1:4b-8; John 18:33-37

Today we are invited to be boisterous
and jubilant as we celebrate
Christ the King!
The One who is triumphant.
It is curious and not without purpose that
we celebrate this day on the Sunday before
Advent begins.

Next week the mood will shift as we prepare
to welcome the Light of Christ into the world —
a light that will come in the form of a vulnerable infant, one who is born into a family on the run,
born into a family of refugees.

How do we reconcile these very different images?
Or should we even try?
Perhaps we are meant to hold them in tension:
Christ the King and Christ the helpless child.

As I pondered this, I couldn’t help but
think of when Jesus visited the
countryside of the Gerasenes.
As he stepped out of the boat,
there were many gathered there,
hoping to hear him for themselves,
to encounter him and all his healing grace.

The scene is disrupted when the demonaic
comes running from the tomb,
his shackles broken,
and pleads with Jesus:
“What have you to do with me, Son of God?”

The able bodied there
– those in their right minds –
promptly leave, while Jesus stands calmly,
hands open and inviting,
before the troubled man.
He has compassion and quiets the
many voices, that have plagued him.

Later, when the people muster
the courage to return,
they find the man sitting with Jesus,
clothed and in his right mind.*

This is the overcoming power and authority
that Jesus, our King, wields –
the ability to be present, hands open,
in the midst of deep agony, brokenness and pain.

Earlier this month two of us from Church Without Walls
gathered in Dallas, Texas, with leaders from
30 other similar ministries
from around the country.

Collectively we call ourselves Ecclesia.
We shared stories and best practices and
offered prayer and support for one another.

While what each of our ministries offers varies,
depending on our context and community,
we all share an abiding commitment to a
ministry of presence – of walking alongside.

In our accomplishment-driven, goal-oriented culture,
it can be hard to get our heads around
this concept of presence –
but it is immeasurably powerful.
By consistently showing up for fellowship,
communion and prayer,
we foster a sacred space –
a community in which we witness the
powerful movement of Jesus.

I am wearing a cross that was designed
for Ecclesia ministries.
We are allowed to purchase these crosses,
with the expectation that we will bless them
and distribute them as part of our liturgy.

They are a strong symbol of belonging.
When we see one another on the street,
we know we are part of the same community.
This extends beyond our geography.

Five weeks ago, I was serving coffee from
the back of my car – also known as the Java Jalopy —
when a young man approached me.
He held up an Ecclesia cross and asked:
“Where can I find this church?”
“You’re here,” I explained.
He had received his cross from an Ecclesia
congregation in Philadelphia.

When we gather as a church,
when the powerful and privileged
come together with the broken,
forgotten and despised,
amazing things happen.

In this quiet, easy space, a leveling occurs
where we each let go of the pressure
of who we think we need to be.
We are able to rest — just as we are —
in this simple community.
Many who come from as far as Ponte Vedra
or Orange Park speak of the healing they
have experienced by gathering under
our sycamore tree.

I want to tell you about Richard,
one of our members who was baptized
on All Saints Day two years ago.

I first met Richard at a local shelter.
He visited with me over several months.
Often he wept as he shared about his struggle
with alcohol.

He expressed deep love for his 10-year-old daughter
and for his entire family, from whom he
kept his distance, not wanting to disappoint them.

About 3 months ago,
we learned that Richard died suddenly.
For days, we struggled to find any details
about his death or possible funeral arrangements.

But then, one evening I got a message
through Facebook from a woman in Georgia.
“Richard was my favorite cousin,” she wrote.
“I just want you to know how special
your church was to him, and to thank you
for providing a safe place where
Richard knew he was loved.”

A few days after that, I got a call from Richard’s mother.
She told me he had had a heart attack and
was found on the street.
“He was wearing the cross you gave him.”

As we spoke, we figured out that she volunteers
at a community hospital where I train chaplains.
That week, we were able to meet face-to-face,
and I reassured her that Richard loved her and
had no doubt that he was loved by his family.
Together we planned his service.

The gift of community – of meaningful connections
that can only be formed
by the creative love of Christ –
is greater that anything any of us
could do on our own.

In the Gospel, when Pontius Pilate asks Jesus:
“Are you the King of the Jews?”
his question is just as much about the community
as it is about Jesus.
He is asking the community: “Who are you?”

When Jesus is condemned and crucified, it is as if
the community has been annihilated
but we know the truth:
Jesus’ sacrificial action – his self-giving — is
about gathering the entire community –
it is about gathering all of creation
into Unity in him.

“Who are you?”
You are a beautiful manifestation of
God’s self-giving love.
You are engaged in so many ministries,
including our Church Without Walls.

When we act on behalf of the Gospel –
when we love and serve
the stranger in our midst,
it is not about the strong ministering
to the weak.

It is about a willingness to come together with
those who at first glance may seem quite different.
It is about sharing whatever we may have
or need on any given day.
It is about both giving and receiving.
The One who is at the same time
Triumphant King and Vulnerable Child
allows this leveling to take place.
In Him, mutual ministry is born.

“Who are we?”
We are children of the King.
And we are children of the One
who knows our deepest need,
because he himself has experienced it.

So let us listen to his voice.
It is for this that we were born.

*Adapted from Craig Rennebohm’s Souls in the Hands of a Tender God.

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Made holy.

(Photo taken by Mary Hamilton at Church Without Walls in Jacksonville, FL, Oct. 18, 2015)

(Photo taken by Mary Hamilton at Church Without Walls in Jacksonville, FL, Oct. 18, 2015)

At Church Without Walls, we often end the service with a blessing attributed to St. Clare. It includes the words: “Your Creator loves you, made you holy…”

What does it mean to be loved, to be made holy? And how can we honor this?

If we accept that we are made in the image and likeness of God, we must accept that we are made whole or complete. We are challenged to love and embrace ourselves just as the One who created us embraces and loves us.

This morning I heard a Franciscan priest talk about how the Prayer of St. Francis (written not by St. Francis but rather hundreds of years after Francis’s death) is counter to Francis’s theology — how he would never utter words asking God to “make” him anything because he was already made. His point invites me to look for the wholeness — the holiness — within, to seek the divine footprint in my soul and my life as part of the whole of an active creation.

I remember explaining some years ago to a group of 12 step friends — as we sought to discern, as best we could, God’s will for us — that God hadn’t called me to be Mother Teresa, of that I was certain. He had already created Mother Teresa. My job was to discover who I was, who God had created me to be, and to work to become the best “me” I could. Many meanderings and missteps later, I still maintain that this is my job.

In my chaplaincy work, in the hospital and on the street, I am called to face and be present with a fair amount of horror and ugliness. I have come to find that the only way to do this work with any integrity is to learn to face and be present with the horror and ugliness within myself. To learn to embrace those parts of myself I find abhorrent, and, in the face of failing and pain, to love the wretchedness, to discover God loving me in the darkest depth and loneliness.

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A Third Way.

(Photo taken at Camp Weed, near Live Oak, FL, Oct. 19, 2015.)

(Photo taken at Camp Weed, near Live Oak, FL, Oct. 19, 2015.)

My tendency is often to sort things out, deciding what fits where, as I attempt to order my own life and seek to make sense of the world around me. I know I am not alone in this endeavor.

I know I am not alone in times of angst and frustration, when life’s circumstances don’t lend themselves to such tidy work. Perhaps those things that truly matter are not meant to be fully known or understood by mere mortals. Perhaps instead we are called to love. To be generous.

Drawing on the wisdom of the mystics, Richard Rohr writes of a Third Way – encouraging us to stand in the place between what we know and what we don’t know.* This way of being calls us to search for wisdom rather than answers. It calls us to a place of unity rather than to a place of being right or wrong.

There are an infinite number of ways to look at any issue if we are willing to look anew — if we allow ourselves to enter waters of wonder rather than rightness. What if we were to let go of the need to “prove” and “pin down” and instead to stretch into a place of expansive curiosity?

What if I were to sit peaceably and listen to your heart, not just to the surface currents but to those things deep and hidden? What if I were to love and discover you just as you are?

* Yes, And: Daily Meditations, p 410.

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Hurry not.

(Photo taken in Kula, Maui, September 2015)

(Photo taken in Kula, Maui, September 2015)

This past week I was reminded that rushing is not necessary. It is not life-giving. It is not healthy.

On Maui, no one seems to be in a hurry, even folks going through the motions and routine of day-to-day life. If someone’s mind wanders while stopped at a stop sign, the driver behind just goes with the flow, taking advantage of the pause. There were no signs of road rage anywhere.

I quickly learned to lean into the pause, to enjoy it, to experience it is an opportunity to take a breath and notice what is happening in the world around me: a clump of wildflowers blooming by the side of the road, a bird flitting from branch to branch, the clouds moving to form yet another spectacular show of light, shadow and extraordinary color.

Slowing down to such an extreme put my “normal” routine in stark relief. It affirmed what I had been coming to acknowledge and accept over these past few months: it is time to make changes, to discern the essential and necessary for today rather than trying to do so much, so quickly.

This involves trusting God and considering that God is in charge. As my new friend Paul, a gentle “old hippy spirit” I visited at a hospital in Kula, told me: “You are loved and God’s working it all out.”

So, back on the mainland, I am taking a few small but concrete steps to maintain that “Maui mellow” – to free up the type B person within who has been crowded out by a type A life. I am not kidding myself. I know it will be easy to move to my default behavior.

Even so, I am looking forward to a new practice – a spiritual discipline – of pausing, waiting and discovering the beauty all around.

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Resting in grace.

(Photo taken this morning, while walking above Kula, Maui)

(Photo taken this morning, while walking above Kula, Maui)

I am blessed to be staying in Kula, a tiny town nestled 3500 feet up, on the island of Maui. For me, this time away represents a much-needed and long overdue respite — a time to reflect on what has been and to ponder possibilities. An old writer-friend used to say: “The hardest choices are not between the good and the bad; the hardest choices are between two good things.”

My life is blessed with many good things, and discerning choices — even those “small” day-to-day decisions — can be a dizzying source of tension and angst. I am grateful to my friends Kerith and Ali for their hospitality and to tender Haley for being my 4-legged companion during my stay.

This morning, as I took a beautiful walk along a narrow, one-lane road, the promise of new perspective hovered in the air. I was reminded of the healing power that comes from immersing oneself in the beauty of the earth. The sense of renewed hope and the promise of restoration called to mind this favorite poem:

The Peace of Wild Things by Wendell Berry

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.

I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.

And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

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Open hands.

(Photo taken near St. Augustine, FL.)

(Photo taken near St. Augustine, FL.)

Last night I dreamt I was travelling somewhere – with my former roommate Lisa and our friend Ashley and possibly one other soul or two. We arrived at our initial destination by what means I know not. A plane? A glider? A hot air balloon? Our landing was smooth, gentle, effortless.

Suddenly I was in wide-open space, the flat ground covered with grass that was spare but green, the sky wide and blue with wisps of cloud. I could see a city in the distance and a vast ocean to my right. I looked around and saw the bay and waterways close at hand and, as I ran toward the edge of grass, a cement walkway – a tiny boat ramp — rose up, leading into the water.

I was mesmerized as gorgeous, huge fish leapt out of the water, one with a silver-white body, with a jagged streak (perhaps lightening?) running its length.

There was a man with a young boy splashing in the water, delighted by the activity. Gorgeous turquoise and brilliant sapphire blue flying fish leapt out of the water, dancing in front of us. I began to shout with joy and awe — Look! Look! – and glanced back to be sure my friends could see what was happening but they must have had other business to tend.

Then the man stepped onto the far end of the ramp, looking at me, his hands held out, open and receptive. You have an amazing voice, he told me. I wondered to myself, What does he mean, you have an amazing voice, for I have often been uncertain about the tenor and power of my voice. I didn’t ask the question aloud but the man seemed to have heard it anyhow.

Do you see what has happened, he asked. My son heard your voice – the power and joy of it – and suddenly he wanted to be with his mother. And suddenly I was aware of a woman also in the water and of the young boy who had climbed into her arms. I felt a mix of intense longing and delight. They shared the joy of being together in this amazing place of wonder as sunlight and fish danced on the shimmering sea. They found themselves and each other and, as I took this in, I found some lost part of myself. I found a sense of strength and power that was healing for me because it was rooted and grounded in generosity and love.

Some time after this encounter, I caught up with my friends. We broke bread and shared with one another all that we could of what each of us found through our respective adventures that day.

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Communion happens.

(Photographed in the “garden of hope” at Clara White Mission, Jacksonville, FL.)

Last night my dear friend Ian, who a couple of weeks ago staged a production of Godspell to benefit Church Without Walls, shared a wonderful story with me:

This week he was downtown with several Godspell cast members as they prepared for a fabulous production of Spring Awakening this week.

The group had just bought sandwiches and were headed to Heming Park to enjoy them.

Then, suddenly, they heard someone shout “Godspell!”

They looked up to see one of our Church Without Walls parishioners, who is not hard to recognize, with his sometimes awkward gate and flourish of tattoos. This man had attended not one but two performances of Godspell and was so moved that he brought others from his camp to experience it the second time.

During this happy exchange, one of the young actors tore his sandwich in half and shared it with this man as the group found a place to sit together and share a common meal.

Moments like this make the day-to-day work of building community — of being church – worthwhile.

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Close moments.

(Icon written by Eduardo Santana of Bolondrón, Cuba, and generously gifted to me on my last Sunday at St. Francis In-the-Field.)

(Icon written by Eduardo Santana of Bolondrón, Cuba, and generously gifted to me on my last Sunday at St. Francis In-the-Field.)

It has become a spiritual practice for me to reflect upon my life experience and to identify “close moments with Christ” – those times when I sense the presence of the Holy Spirit in the midst of day-to-day living.

Today has felt for me like one of those “thin places,” where heaven and earth come together.

Close moments came as I visited friends, who showed up at our Church Without Walls to worship and give thanks just two days after having their camp dismantled, without notice, and all their worldly possessions confiscated and destroyed.

I felt the closeness of the Creator when a sweet pup allowed me to rub her belly as she lay in the grass exhausted from all the disruption and upheaval.

Another close moment came when a friend reached out to me, as he struggles to have integrity with his word but worries about giving offense to those who may not agree with him.

I witnessed the love of Christ as a friend wept with relief upon hearing word of another who had been missing for several days.

During worship, Jesus made himself known when friends from the L’Arche community exuberantly joined us in singing Amazing Grace. “I learned how to sing today,” one of our regulars commented. The freedom to be ourselves and to love in the moment is clearly a gift from heaven above.

May we recognize those “close moments” in our midst and trust that the One who created everything that is means it when he calls us friend.

My apologies to those who follow this blog fairly consistently for being silent this past month. It has been a busy and demanding time for me — a time in which I sense the Spirit working in me. I am hoping to write more regularly. But, in the meantime, I share these gifts of encounter and experience with you. Peace be with you.

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Open and undefended.

(Photo taken in my backyard.)

(Photo taken in my backyard.)

This is a personal reflection on my experience as a first-time deputy to the 78th General Convention of The Episcopal Church, which is presently convening in Salt Lake City.

We cannot receive new life — we cannot experience transformation — without becoming vulnerable. In his remarks to the 78th General Convention of the Episcopal Church, Frank Griswold (who served as our 25th Presiding Bishop) called for each of us to have a “heart that is open and undefended in the face of different perspectives.” These are wise words.

It is unrealistic to imagine that we will ever agree on everything as a Church and a community of faith. Nonetheless, we are called to do God’s work of justice and mercy together – to be One in Christ. And, as our new Presiding Bishop-elect Michael Curry would be quick to remind us, we can agree on Jesus.

For the most part, the tenor of our conversations during convention has been respectful, inviting and loving. We start each day with Eucharist and worship, and our chaplain leads us in prayer multiple times each day as the House of Deputies and House of Bishops convene to do their work. This rhythm of prayerful worship, reflection and work as a community of faith, will inform my work when I return home.

Something that has surprised me – even to the point of awe – is the care and persistence of the legislative committees as they do the hard work of crafting and refining resolutions to be considered. Their meetings are open to observers and allow, at times, for testimony from those who care deeply about the issues under consideration.

Because the subject is near and dear to my heart, I sat in on the working meetings and open hearings of the special committee on “alcohol and other drug abuse.” This committee was formed very recently in part in response to the tragic hit-and-run accident in Maryland last December, for which Heather Cook (former bishop) has been charged with DUI manslaughter. The Church has not revisited its policy on substance abuse since 1983, so, even without such motivation, this work is well overdue.

This committee had only 4 weeks to do its work and, at convention worked tirelessly to craft three resolutions, which have all been passed by the House of Deputies, without opposition. Included in the resolutions is a call for dioceses and parishes to examine their own complicity in a culture of alcohol and to develop policies and mechanisms for promoting the health and wholeness of all parishioners, including those in recovery and those who may need help in addressing issues of addiction.

The effectiveness of this committee speaks not only to the persistence, openness and love of its members but also to the grace and movement of the Holy Spirit.

There is much work yet to be done on myriad issues as we continue to gather and consider hundreds of resolutions. We can all be encouraged by the love, generosity and sacrifice of these bishops, and lay and clergy deputies, and by the certain presence of a loving God in our midst.

Know that your prayers — regardless of your faith background – are desired and make a world of difference.

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May hatreds cease.

(Photo taken at Trinity Episcopal Church, St. Augustine, FL.)

(Photo taken at Trinity Episcopal Church, St. Augustine, FL.)

Grant, O God, that your holy and life-giving Spirit may so move every human heart that barriers which divide us may crumble, suspicions disappear, and hatreds cease; that our divisions being healed, we may live in justice and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (Book of Common Prayer, p 823)

Today, for our “church without walls” service, I vested in red – the color of “the blood of Jesus,” as one parishioner noted. Only this day, the red signified also the blood of the 9 Christians brutally murdered at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston last Thursday.

We spoke about this terror-filled event as a community, and I could tell by the expressions on some of the faces that they were hearing about this tragedy for the first time.

During the Prayers of the People, we prayed for the victims and for the shooter. We prayed for each other and for the Church. We prayed for tolerance for all people.

One congregant took me aside as we were waiting for lunch. “That was awful, Mother Beth. I can’t stop thinking about it,” he said of the shooting, as he shared his feelings of deep pain and upset. “And to think I was so full of hate just like that young man. It was bred into me,” he said of the racism he had been steeped in for much of his growing up, for much of his life (his neo-Nazi tattoos testified to this.)

“But look what Jesus is doing in you,” I remarked, as I looked into his tear-filled eyes. “You remind me that there is hope for all of us.”

This evening, as I mowed my yard, I found myself struggling with something more than grief. It became apparent to me that I carry a wound that can no longer be avoided. It is a wound that comes from the complicity of silence. From the weariness that says, “I haven’t the energy to deal actively with racial injustice; besides I have no idea where to start.”

Twenty-three years ago, I was in Los Angeles during the Rodney King trial, when police officers who were captured on video brutally beating Rodney King, stood trial for their actions. During the time of the trial, I happened to be sponsoring two African American women, who were in rehab. One Saturday night, we went to dinner and a meeting, and the two of them predicted that riots would occur. Blissfully ignorant, I interjected: “How can that be? The police officers are on video beating the man senseless with batons. Of course, they’ll be found guilty!” My friends cast each other a knowing glance as if to say: She may be our mentor, but we need to take the white woman to school. The following week, the riots unfolded in startling fashion from my perspective, but reflecting what was inevitable in my friends’ world.

Today, on Father’s Day, I remember to be proud of the work my father did as a federal judge in the early 70s, drawing up a busing plan to desegregate Duval County when the school board violated federal law by refusing to do so. Our family paid a price during those years. The tension of the time — having people protest and threaten to burn crosses in our front yard; having U.S. Marshalls live with us in our modest. 3-bedroom ranch house; being ostracized by classmates – was like throwing gasoline on the fire of my mother’s alcoholism. It heightened the ever-present sense of anxiety that surrounded us.

What my father did during that divisive, hate-filled time was important. It was a frightening period in our history, and doing the right, just thing took courage. But we had the privilege of having U.S. Marshalls protect us. And my father could have stepped aside, at any given time, like so many others chose to do. We had choices.

I have known my own form of fear, worrying as a child — when my father tried organized crime cases in the midst of threats — if my daddy would make it home okay. I’ve had a tiny taste of what it is to have people – mostly white folks – say hateful, threatening things. But I have never known what it is like to be afraid simply because of the color of my skin.

May the Holy Spirit awaken us to the reality that we are all wounded, we all suffer, whenever and wherever violence and hatred find expression. May Love make itself known in each of us, in our communities and in our world.

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