Thursday, August 17, 2017


The inscription found on the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor reads, “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore, Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” Of course, these words are not law, constitutional or otherwise, but they are reflective of the values held by an American populace that yearns for freedom and the pursuit of happiness for all people – especially toward those who newly find themselves embarking on the shores of this country.

The preambles of the Declaration of Independence and U.S. Constitution likewise address the subject of “unalienable rights” and the intent to “form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility,” respectively. The founding principles of our nation are ones to be constantly reminded of especially in the wake of yet more violence, death, and injury at the hands of angry people in Charlottesville, Virginia on Saturday, August 12.

I will be honest and say that I took a step back from passing judgment or rushing to conclusions on what happened and why in Charlottesville. I have my own positions on politics and social issues, and that certainly does not reduce or negate the positions of anyone who may differ from my beliefs or ideologies. However, after listening to high-ranking police officers, the mayor of Charlottesville, the U.S. Representative for the district as well as other officials and local religious leaders with experience of the situation, it is clear that the protests that turned violent and deadly in Charlottesville was instigated and caused by those angrily pushing an agenda that that sets white people in America at a higher value – a much higher value – than those who are non-white. This agenda is the white nationalist or supremacist agenda (not capitalized on purpose).

As well and good and revered as the historic documents of the United States are (I just returned from an exciting trip to Washington, D.C. where I viewed these documents personally), as Christians we do not seek these for instruction (although we may be inspired by them). We seek rather the Gospel of Jesus Christ for instruction. Jesus never once took a nationalist, racial, patriarchal, or other separatist or supremacist view toward another. As a matter of fact, Jesus did the exact opposite: he raised the status of the outcast and of the sinner to full inclusion and value in the community.

One of my favorite gospel stories (which will actually be read this Sunday, August 20) is found in Matthew chapter 15 (v. 21-28) when a Canaanite woman (Canaanites were more or less pagan; oh, and she was a woman, so double negative in ancient Palestine) plead for Jesus’ mercy to heal her demon-possessed daughter but Jesus ignores her. Further, the disciples urged Jesus to “send her away.” Here Jesus is once again approached by an outsider – a religious outcast, a woman, and possibly a single woman/mother since there is no evidence of a husband seeking out Jesus for help – and while Jesus at first ignores her (please read this gospel passage, it’s really good), she persists (hold on, it’s not all that happens here), then Jesus invites her – by what appears to be a rude response about throwing children’s food to the dogs – to enter into the practice of Rabbinical arguing. Her response to the dog statement is remarkable! Immediately her daughter is healed, but something else is remarkable. Jesus invites a Canaanite (non-Jewish, pagan) woman (women had no social clout or standing, but were rather property – certainly not authorities) into a relationship reserved for Rabbis (all men). Jesus elevates her status. Jesus engages with yet another outcast, outsider, non-relevant alien, nobody, and sees her, honors her, and grants her mercy (man, I love Jesus).

Jesus never once looked to the outcast, outsider, non-relevant alien, nobody and demanded they go to the recesses of society. Never once did Jesus take a high and mighty, supremacist view over another and dismiss them, let alone encourage violence upon them. Jesus embraced the other, whomever that other was. And Jesus does the same for us. Even in our sinful state, Jesus reaches out to us and elevates us to a holier place, making us acceptable even before God. And this is why we worship the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ and not any political leader, king or queen, stateswoman or man, billionaire or other influential human. We set our sights on Jesus and follow him as our merciful Lord who denies the dignity or humanity of no one.

The racism that we all witnessed last weekend in Charlottesville is not only abhorrent and ant-American and anti-human, but is also anti-Christ and stands in opposition of God’s purposes for a beautiful world that God created for us all to live in. Not only should the Church of God in Christ stand against this hatred and violence, but the Church must have a voice that addresses the origin of this hatred and violence: fear. When we fail to trust God (and we are all guilty of that!), we become very susceptible to opening ourselves to be controlled by fear. I believe that is what is behind this violence and discord. And not just this past weekend, but in the events of terror all over the world: the attacks in Paris and in Nice; Brussels; Orlando; and way too many other places to list here. These atrocities are fueled by fear: fear of not having enough resources; fear of not having enough work; fear of the lack of opportunity; fear of not being loved or fear that we don’t matter. Fear is a powerful force and it came out raging in Charlottesville.

The only way to overcome fear is to trust in God. It’s the only answer I really have. As Christians (or any other religious affiliation: Jew, Muslim, Buddhist), we must trust that God cares for us, is for us, and is madly in love with us, and we have no reason to fear precisely because of this love. Therefore, Christians and all people of faith must stand not only against racist, homophobic, xenophobic and all other sources of violence, but we must stand for love. We must stand for love. No matter what it takes, no matter what it costs, we must stand firm as children of God, sharing his extravagant love for all others, and living out our Baptismal Covenant (found in the Episcopal prayer book p. 305) to “strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.”

“Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight.” Lord Jesus, bless us and keep us and may we ever walk in your light. Amen.

A Prayer for Social Justice (Book of Common Prayer, 823)

Grant, O God, that your holy and life-giving Spirit may so move every human heart, especially the hearts of the people of this land, 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.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Nell Clark Downum

Servant leadership was a topic that we were familiarized with in seminary. I use the word “familiarize” rather than “learn,” because servant leadership is something that I’m not sure can be learned. I hadn’t heard the term, to my recollection, until I got to seminary many years ago. One can familiarize oneself with the term; learn the definition of servant leadership in a broad context, but to learn how to be a servant leader, I’m not sure is possible at least in a genuine and sincere way.

Bishop emeritus, president of the Servant Leader Institute and author Bennett Sims reflects on the subject of servant leadership as a bishop in the church. He writes, “In actual practice the bishop’s role varies from diocese to diocese, depending on local tradition and the bishop’s personal style, but on the whole he or she must rely on the power of persuasion and example, not on control.”[i]

Bennett Sims does not give a straight definition of servant leadership; you’d have to read an entire chapter to formulate his description of such a person in that role, but in these few words describing his experience as a leader who serves, we find a good sample: “she must rely on the power of persuasion and example, not on control.” A leader who merely makes demands and gives instruction without entering into the work he or she leads is not a servant. But one who leads by example, one who gives direction and follows her own instruction by example and not force, is a servant. And such a servant is a servant-leader. Nell was such a leader.

Nell did not give an instruction that she herself would not follow. As a matter of fact, as an altar guild member in this place since 1960 she not only followed her own instructions, she had already done the task countless times. Nell was a servant leader. We knew what was expected of us and we knew when we fell short of that expectation. It only took a look or maybe just a few words, and you knew where Nell stood on a liturgical practice or an altar guild responsibility or technique. And she never would have you do something in a way that she would not have done herself. A leader, according to Bennett Sims, “must rely on the power of persuasion and example.” Nell led by example. And what an example she set. She not only served on the altar guild for 57 years here, but shaped it and formed it in many ways. Not out of control, but from example.

Now you know that Nell was the consummate Episcopalian; that is, traditional, espousing and expecting the dignity that the liturgical church demands, knowing very well her craft. She shared her knowledge both verbally and by example, but she didn’t necessarily talk about how everything the altar guild does honors Jesus. Even as a devoted thrift shop volunteer, how the thrift shop honored Christ’s presence in the world was not the conversation starter. Perhaps if one did ask how her ministry honored Jesus, she might, just might, have you ask the priest. So that’s what I am going to do. I am going to share with you how Nell’s ministry and the ministry of the altar guild at large, honors Jesus and his Church.

The altar guild in the Episcopal Church is a ministry of the most sacred of things. The vessels, the linens, the cloths, and hangings all work in concert together to honor and give reverence to a man who Christians regard as God with us and among us: Jesus Christ. As the author of John’s Gospel tells us about Jesus, “It is God’s only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart….” “The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.”

As Jesus gave his very life for his friends and indeed for the world, the Church has instituted the Sacraments of Christ’s Body and Blood as a result of that sacrifice; instructed by our Lord himself that we remember him in this way. The blessed wine, the blessed bread, the vessels, and containers and linens that hold these precious elements, are cared for by the members of the altar guild. The seamless garment worn by the priest – the chasuble – represents the seamless garment worn by Jesus at his Crucifixion. The altar’s fine linen represents the shroud that enwrapped Jesus’ body at his burial. The veil we see at the altar covering the sacred vessels represents the veil that covered Jesus head at his burial. All these are tended to, cared for, and adorn the sanctuary by the altar guild as visuals of the majesty and holiness of God through the person of Jesus Christ. And to the altar guild, this is serious business. As it should be. And Nell made no question about that.

She, with her fellow guild members, served Jesus in this most intimate way. She showed us the proper and most meaningful way to honor Christ through this ministry. How to fold, iron, stow and display these sacred vessels and elements to honor God and to bring each one of us each Sunday and Wednesday and Holy Day, into the presence of the Divine.

One of our Bishops, Jeff Fisher, who oversees pastoral ministries in our diocese, including the altar guild, writes to members, “You are the preparers and keepers and transmitters of some of the coolest stuff we have in The Episcopal Church.” Bishop Fisher goes on to say, “Tell people that altar guild work is not a job. Tell folks that altar guild work is a ministry, a ministry where you are gifted with a rare window into the majesty and serenity of God. Tell people how you encounter Jesus while touching and preparing holy things. You are evangelists!”

The last thing Nell Downum would have thought of herself as is an evangelist. But our own bishop would beg to differ. Her witness and example of teaching and forming those who perform liturgical ministries (which includes me!); and her service – faithful service at the thrift shop where she knew the importance of that ministry to our community, made her one great evangelist. Maybe not always in word, but certainly in deed, she was an evangelist – one who shared the Good News of God in Christ.

If we ever wonder what it means to be a Christian, I’d say we can look to Nell Downum and get a really good idea of what a Christian is. She loved her family. She loved her church. She loved her church family. And she loved serving God in his Church. She did what Christians are supposed to do: she loved and she served. It’s what Jesus calls us all to do. She gave of herself like the good and faithful servant Jesus called her to be. She was a steward of God’s blessings on her life, as she was a blessing to all who knew and loved her. As she herself experienced many seasons in life, her life remained a season of faithfulness and dedication to her Lord; literally until the day she went to her eternal home. In the midst of our grief and sorrow, there is hope and joy, as she takes her place among the saints, shining brighter than ever in Christ’s Resurrection light.

(From the National Altar Guild – the Chalice prayer) Let us pray.
Father, to you I raise my whole being — a vessel emptied of self. Accept, O Lord, this my emptiness, and so fill me with yourself — your Light, your Love, your Life — that these your precious Gifts may radiate through me and overflow the chalice of my heart into the hearts of all with whom I come into contact this day, revealing to them the beauty of your joy and wholeness and the serenity of your peace which nothing can destroy. Amen.

Nell Clark Downum | 1927- 2017 

[i] Sims, Bennett J. (1997) Servanthood. Boston, MA: Cowley Publications

Rose Farrell Taylor

The Camino de Santiago, also known in English as the Way of St. James, or the Route of Santiago de Compostela, is the name of any of the pilgrimage routes, to the shrine of the apostle St. James the Greater, who is James, son of Zebedee, in the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia in northwestern Spain. The pilgrimage takes place from various starting points across Europe and people travel very long distances to reach the shrine. Tradition has it that the remains of the saint are buried there.

Many follow these pilgrim routes to the cathedral as a form of spiritual path or retreat for their spiritual growth. The Way of St. James can take one of dozens of pilgrimage routes to Santiago de Compostela. Traditionally, as with most pilgrimages, the Way of Saint James began at one's home and ended at the pilgrimage site.
Something interesting about the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage, in addition to the pilgrimage itself, is that people of any faith or no faith at all find it an inspiring journey; some even say life-changing. Today, hundreds of thousands of Christian pilgrims and many others set out each year from their front doorsteps or from popular starting points across Europe, to make their way to Santiago de Compostela. Most travel by foot, some by bicycle, and a few travel as some of their medieval counterparts did, on horseback or by donkey. In addition to those embarking on a religious pilgrimage, many are hikers who walk the route for other reasons: travel, sport, or simply the challenge of weeks of walking in a foreign land. But many consider the experience a spiritual adventure to remove themselves from the bustle of modern life as it serves as a retreat for many modern "pilgrims.” But perhaps the most interesting part of this pilgrimage experience, is that while the sojourn ends at the cathedral site, many regard their arrival as the beginning of a new pilgrimage. One that brings the pilgrim closer to God in new and unexpected ways (as a side note, Emilio Estevez wrote and directed the movie “The Way”, based on this pilgrimage. You can stream it on Netflix). 

Some regard the life of a Christian to be as a pilgrim’s journey. A pilgrimage, after all, is not just a long walk, but a journey filled with meaningful experiences; experiences that include the presence of God and for the Christian, one with Jesus. Now, for the purposes of this homily, I will call our beloved grandmother, Rose; as some of us call her Mema and the younger generation call her Mimi; which spell check seems to prefer. Either way, we know calling her the “g” word would probably get you killed.

Rose walked the pilgrim’s way. My earliest memories include seeing Rose singing in the choir at Holy Cross in Miami. As a young adult I attended with her quite often at Holy Sacrament in Pembroke Pines where she attended because the rector made her laugh. That was a litmus test. And of course, moving to Lady Lake, it didn’t take her long to call St. George’s her new church home.

Her spiritual life was very important to her. She was a proud Episcopalian. As a matter of fact, the Episcopal Church / Church of England was the only real church as far as she was concerned! Well, if you were Roman Catholic or Orthodox, you got a pass…close enough.

Her life pilgrimage was certainly influenced by her faith and dedication to Jesus’ church. She served the church in many and various ways. As one who earned a bachelor’s degree in religion, she used that knowledge to deepen her faith and serve the church in leadership roles and was able to have interesting and deep conversations in matters of faith. As Episcopalians, we hold faith and knowledge closely together. As a result, her faith was steady and a real substantive part of her life.

The only thing bigger than that big smile of hers was maybe her heart. The closest I really got to Rose on a regular basis was when I was a teenager and she got me a job at the bowling center she managed in North Miami. I had a great time working there, mostly because of her. Her personality was so big that when I was scheduled to work during times she wasn’t there, the placed literally seemed dead, even if it was a busy night. What made the biggest impression on me though was the fact that everyone loved and respected her. From the young man who cleaned up food and drink items after bowlers, all the way up to the owner himself, and every employee in between, she was loved and respected. Not many people can do that: endear themselves to both a dishwasher and an executive; and do it genuinely.

She was such a gift. If you needed something and she could give it, you got it. Later, in my twenties when I was pinched between places to live, my mother said, “ask Mima if you can stay with her”. She was so excited to have me come. I always felt so loved by her. But it was weird living with her. The woman made some interesting choices in life, especially when it came to money. She could stretch a dollar the length of a football field. You’d find little things like pads of paper or pencils and pens from the bowling alley. Want a cup of tea? The sugar bowl was filled with little sugar packets like you see at restaurants…or bowling alley lunch counters. She was one of a kind; unique, and smart, and funny in countless ways.

As people hear of my grandmother’s passing, often they share a story with me about their grandmother. How they baked the perfect cherry pie, or unforgettable cupcakes. That’s not really a description of our grandmother…not much of a baker. But she’d play a round of billiards with you or kick your butt on the bowling lanes. And I don’t know how many people can visit their grandmother…and her pet squirrel, Freddy. Yep. Living with her had its moments even without the squirrel; who she released behind our Episcopal Church after Freddy bit her all up and down both arms one day. The memories are countless. And one thing she did always have, were those little Andes chocolate mints on hand. Since I was a kid and even now, these little chocolate mints remind me of her.  

What a journey she lived. And I hope I can speak for the whole family that we were so excited for her as she traveled with [daughter] Shannon to Ireland, France, Italy, Greece, Turkey, Egypt, the Holy Land (by which I mean Israel) but she also went to the other Holy Land, England, where she got to see the home where her mother lived. Thank you Shannon for helping her check off an awesome bucket list.

The thing about the Spanish pilgrimage to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, the Camino de Santiago, the pilgrim’s path, is that once people reached the pilgrimage destination, one pilgrimage ended, but another one began. As sojourners make their way across Europe on bike, horse, or foot, there are several stopping points where people offer hospitality: some offer a place to stay overnight, others offer food and drink, and others offer some other sort of refreshment. Some sites for relief are parish churches and monasteries where pilgrims can rest and take time for prayer or have Eucharist. As a complete pilgrimage experience, most people are so moved by the people they have met, they places they have seen, and the encounters with God through the grace of hospitality and sacrament that a new pilgrimage begins when they leave the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela.

That’s the kind of pilgrimage Rose had. She met countless people on her sojourn, had great experiences, and touched the lives of hundreds with her big smile and her big personality and today we thank God for her. We give thanks to God for the Resurrection of Jesus, because it is through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus that a new pilgrimage beckons.  

I chose the gospel lesson this morning because it tells us a story. The story is about Jesus’ friends and loved ones, Mary and Martha, grieving together after the loss of their friend and brother, Lazarus. It is a story in a larger story about a community of followers of Jesus. Jesus is building this community and as we see just a bit later in this gospel, the community continues – not only to survive – but continues to grow and include everyone who chooses to walk in the Way; that is the Way of Christ.

Rose walked this pilgrim’s way. And now as she begins this new leg of her journey and takes her place at that great banquet, where she is now woven into the eternal story, we can see Mary, Martha, Lazarus with Jesus and all his disciples and Rose seated among them, smiling and shining brighter than ever in Christ’s Resurrection light.
Let us pray.

Lord Jesus Christ, by your death you took away the sting of death: Grant to us your servants so to follow in faith where you have led the way, that we may at length fall asleep peacefully in you and wake up in your likeness; for your tender mercies’ sake. Amen.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

An Advocate for all

Ok, so we have a pre-Pentecost Gospel lesson for this Sunday, May 21. And it's a good one - like most passages in John's gospel, it's a good one! And it's especially good because we are still in the Easter season. Yes, it is still Easter and we hear the author of John's gospel recounting a portion of Jesus' farewell discourse as he prepares his disciples for his departure. In light of the Resurrection, in which all the Gospel accounts are written, we find comfort in Jesus' words as he promises that his followers will not be abandoned or orphaned (because we were given "power to become children of God" Jn 1:12). Jesus promises that he will give us another Advocate...another, because Jesus is our first Advocate, and in the wake of his departure from this earth, he will leave us another. He leaves us with the capital A Advocate, because it is the Advocate; the Holy Spirit. And we will have this Spirit - forever! 

So what do we do with this "power" that we have received to become God's children being left this most gracious gift in the receiving of the Spirit? I think if we begin by looking at God's work in the world we find that we are created to be drawn toward resurrection life. 

In the wake of the tragic stories we hear in the news of lives that have ended too short; whether by disease, murder, or neglect, we find the human spirit's drive toward life after death. Two examples that come to mind are the deaths of Penn State sophomore Timothy Piazza and eleven year-old Houstonian Josue Flores. Timothy Piazza, as we have seen in the news now for several weeks, died at the hands of his negligent fraternity community after a senseless ritualistic hazing incident. After consuming far too much alcohol during a hazing activity called "the gauntlet", Piazza became very ill and fell down several feet of stairs and was all but neglected during his unconsciousness. Other students reportedly walked over his unresponsive body, among other tactics that were unhelpful in trying to help Piazza. It was a horrible incident that is under investigation, and one that ultimately cost this young man his life. yet, even in their grief, the family of Timothy Piazza have begun a foundation to raise money and help children who need them, acquire prostheses. This is what Timothy wanted to do: make prostheses for children in need, as well as service women and men. The foundation is meant to honor the life of Timothy Piazza as well as his dream to grant others access to quality of life.

Last year in Houston, eleven year-old Josue Flores was stabbed to death by a madman as he was walking home from school. The Flores family worked to make sure that this would never happen to another child again by advocating legislation to better fund transportation in higher crime areas of Houston. Last week, upon the first anniversary of his death, the “Josue Flores Bill”, SB 195, passed the Senate. It would provide more transportation funding to schools in high crime areas. 

Both of these tragic instances have caused the families to instill hope rather than lose hope. I believe God is active in the lives of people and this hope comes from our Creator, and I'd say further, the Advocate. Jesus promises that we will not be left alone. I believe there are infinite instances, including these examples, that Jesus made good on his promise. We are drawn not to wallow in death, but claim the life abundant that God offers in Jesus Christ. 

And while Jesus promises this Spirit anew, we do find evidence of God's spiritual presence with his people throughout the Hebrew scriptures: Deuteronomy 30:14 "the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe." Isaiah 30:21 "And when you turn to the right or when you turn to the left, your ears shall hear a word behind you, saying, “This is the way; walk in it.” Our drive to honor the life and legacy of those who have gone before, fits into the tapestry of God's intention and dream to reconcile and redeem the world.

I believe the work of the Advocate is very much at work in the world about us. And this Advocate that John writes about is translated in Greek as "Paraclete"; 'para' meaning "alongside". Jesus promises the Spirit who will literally be at our side; be with us in our daily lives. What great news for us this Easter season! 

In our liturgical acclamation of Alleluia! this season we give thanks and praise for the eternally resurrected life of our Lord Jesus and also for his most gracious gift of the Holy Spirit, the Advocate who abides in us, walks alongside us, and who will do so forever. 

Now, in light of of the promised life abundant and the coming of the promised Advocate, imagine if we came to church not for our own self-betterment or even for our own needs. Rather, what if we came to church thinking about how the world would be different because we came? The Piazza and Flores families were left with the choice to let grief take hold and paralyze them, or as grief took hold, to act...act for the good and security of others in the wake of their grief. Perhaps the word was near to them. Perhaps they heard the word saying, “This is the way; walk in it.” 

The lives of Timothy Piazza and Josue Flores cannot be brought back, there lives are in God's now. But the families have worked and are working diligently to ensure the safety and well being of other students and children. I believe this is as strong a Christian message as any.

God continues to come in the Holy Spirit to encourage us and care for us and abide with us and walk alongside of us, showing us the way to abundant life in Christ. Not just for us, but for all people; beyond even the Church. May we hear him and follow him always. 

Monday, March 20, 2017

The Abandoned Water Jar

Lent 3A | John 4:5-42

You probably have heard what an exciting Ash Wednesday we had here at St. Christopher’s this year. Kind of sounds funny saying that doesn’t it? “Exciting Ash Wednesday.” Well, I think we did. It was the first official joint venture of St. Christopher’s parish and San Romero fellowship. We began at 7 in the morning – I sent one church member directly to Starbucks to pick up a couple of jugs of coffee – and Uriel Lopez and I started imposing ashes on drivers-by from all walks of life. By 9 a.m. we had placed ashes on 75 foreheads. While I had three other services to prepare for among other things, Father Lopez and his ministers continued their work until after 5 p.m. when they had imposed ashes on nearly 450 people! I think that is very exciting.

While some question the orthodoxy of “Ashes to Go,” others who affirm and support the effort, consider the notion that “instead of waiting for people to come to church; the church must go to the people.” It is, after all, intended for those who would not normally attend church, or who simply cannot because of work or other restrictions. Still, Ashes to Go is intended to be an evangelical tool; a way of making the church’s presence known beyond its walls; and our own San Romero, with God’s help and the people of St. Christopher’s great support, had a fantastic start for the new mission.

In the long gospel lesson this morning, Jesus seems to be doing the practice of “the church going to the people.” Last week, Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night, but today, we hear about Jesus out and about in a foreign land, Samaria, where one of the best stories in John’s gospel takes place: the woman at the well.

Today we hear a contrast in John’s narrative, where last week, the Pharisee and teacher of the Jews, Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night, we hear in this very next chapter, a Samaritan woman who meets Jesus in broad daylight. Symbols are important for John and should always be taken be taken seriously. The symbols we heard today: A woman from Samaria. Jacob’s well. Living water. An abandoned water jar.

Now the story goes that Jesus was tired from his journey and took a seat next to the well. Then, when a Samaritan woman came to draw water from the well, Jesus asks her to give him a drink, all while the disciples were away buying food.

I think it’s important to pause for a moment in this message today about the content of this passage in John. We hear today of a wonderful and significant story about the breaking in of God’s kingdom: everywhere. It is a story about a Samaritan woman, a foreigner, but about so much more. It is a story about the world being offered life through Jesus. It is about worship and it is about eternal life. It is about mission and reconciliation; not just to the house of Israel, but to the whole world. (And yes, the story eventually does lead to evangelism. That “E” word that Portia brought up last week.)

Taken at face value, we can get easily distracted by the prophetic knowledge that Jesus shares with and about this woman. There are many opinions out there about why Jesus discusses the Samaritan woman’s marital status. Opinions that assume Jesus is calling her out on a sinful life demonstrated through serial relations with many men are most irresponsible and cause us to miss the point of this beautiful story about the life and joy that Jesus offers the world. To understand the conversation about marriage, we should understand what John is trying to convey to us about what Jesus is up to.

So let’s explore the plight of our woman friend from Samaria. John scholar Cynthia Kittredge notes that wells are places of engagements. We know the woman is unmarried (which doesn’t mean she’s a horrible person), and that she has had serial marriages; but we don’t know why they ended. Perhaps she has been widowed once or twice; or maybe deserted by one husband or another. The text doesn’t say, nor does Jesus call her a sinner or pronounce any forgiveness of sin. [i]

Professor Kittredge in her book recalls the history of Samaria whose people have worshipped five false gods after the Assyrian captivity. Perhaps she is searching for religious truth, and if so, it is no wonder that Jesus tells her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. But the hour is coming and is now here, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth.” [ii]

In both scenarios Jesus is proclaiming good news. He is proclaiming the promise of salvation and reconciliation, security and life everlasting to a woman who needs to hear this news; indeed to a world who needs to hear it. Nowhere in this story does Jesus forgive her for any sin. Nor does he perform any miracle. There are any number of ways, in fact, that one might imagine this woman’s story as tragic rather than scandalous.

This story, as with many stories we read in the gospels, have little to do with the focal character of the story and so much more to do with Jesus. Now that we have hopefully laid to rest the story of a judging Jesus who sees an outcast, an adulteress, or a woman to be most pitied, let’s now focus on Jesus, the Savior of the world who lives out a mission of salvation and reconciliation to all the world.

Now, the Jews and Samaritans are related peoples. Both are Hebrews. The Samaritans are from the old northern kingdom of Israel, while the Jews are from the old southern kingdom of Judah. The Samaritans inter-married with non-Jewish peoples and lost much of their ethnic identity, while the Jews maintained theirs. Each group ended up with their own temple, the Samaritans on Mount Gerizim, the Jews on Mount Zion. And so it is a strange choice Jesus makes to travel through Samaritan territory. That he strikes up a conversation with a Samaritan is even stranger.

There’s something additional that makes this conversation beside the well a surprise. In that place and time, men and women are not to talk to one another in public. It is not considered proper. Especially when the man is, like Jesus, a rabbi, a teacher, someone looked up to and revered. And thus the disciples, when they return, are astonished that Jesus is speaking with a woman.

Like Jesus, we are called to break down barriers and divisions to speak God’s word of life to others. How often do we allow ourselves to be surprised? The work we are to be doing within the life of the church is the work of transformation: for others and ourselves, from life lived in the world, to that of the spirit. (Remember Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus? “What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.”) Jesus now has two conversations in a row about living life in the spirit. He finds a woman who has been searching, and he knows this because the conversation he has with her keeps her attention.

He asks her for water – she says, “but you have no bucket”. He offers her water and when she drinks of it she will never be thirsty again; as the water that Jesus gives will become a spring of water gushing up to eternal life; and she pleads for this water - “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.”

And after the personal conversation they have, the nameless woman runs back to her village, leaving her water jar behind, and tells everyone that she has found the Savior of the world. Our lady friend here is not a sinner who needs fixing. She, as Professor Kittredge claims, is the hero. She is the first missionary in John’s Gospel and the first woman to proclaim the Good News.

And here, I believe, is the part of the story that witnesses to her transformation. In terms of John’s story and world, this nameless woman has pretty much everything stacked against her: she is a Samaritan in this Jewish story, a woman in a male-dominated world, has lived a challenging and probably tragic life, and is very likely dependent on others.

And yet after her encounter with Jesus she leaves her water jar behind -- perhaps symbolic of all the difficulties and let-downs of her life – and of the physical world rather than spiritual - to live a new and different life and to share with others what God has done for her.

What, I wonder, holds us back from living into the future God has prepared for us and sharing the news of what God has done? What, that is, are the jars we need to leave behind, trading our past tragedies and present challenges for the living water Jesus offers?

Perhaps it’s problems in a job or the difficulty of finding one. Perhaps it’s an unfulfilling or difficult relationship or a painful one. Perhaps it’s a past wound or fear about the future. Maybe it’s an illness of the mind, body, or spirit; or grief or anxiety or guilt or sadness.

It could be any number of things. But the woman left her water jar and ran back to the city, telling the people, “Come and see this man…” Perhaps she comprehended life in the spirit more quickly than Nicodemus did and realized she no longer needed the burden of doing things her own way and on her own terms, that is, clinging to her own water jar, because she now has everything she needs after her encounter with Jesus.

Last week we heard the story of Nicodemus who came searching for Jesus at night. Today we hear the story of the woman at the well who in broad daylight was found by Jesus. Jesus in this gospel is inviting us into a new reality, a new community, a new family. The person sitting next to you is your gift from God in this Jesus community. You did not come to St. Christopher’s on your own accord. Listen to the stories: you either came searching for Jesus in darkness, or he came and found you in his light. This place, this parish, this community, this family is God’s. Paid for by Jesus. It is Jesus who creates our fellowship and our community. So whatever reasons you have for being part of this faith community, always remember who called you into it; and remember that each one of us is a gift to each other. This is the identity of Jesus: the family of God, working together for the purposes of God’s kingdom.

The stories are written so that you get the feeling that you too are at the well listening to Jesus’ lessons and insights into your life, so that you too will abandon your water jar, then run and tell others of this Savior and invite them to “come and see”.

May you find and be found by Jesus again. May you come to the living waters. May you drink into your lives the ever-changing, ever-cleansing, life-giving and sustaining water that Jesus offers; then go and tell others what God in Jesus has done for you. Amen.

[i] Kittredge, Cynthia Briggs (2007) Conversations with Scripture: The Gospel of John. New York, New York: Morehouse Publishing
[ii] Kittredge, Cynthia Briggs (2007) Conversations with Scripture: The Gospel of John. New York, New York: Morehouse Publishing

Monday, March 6, 2017

In God We Trust (?)

In November of 1861, letters were written between the Rev. M.R. Watkinson of Pennsylvania and then Secretary of the Treasury, Salmon Chase on the subject of inscribing “In God We Trust” on U.S. coinage. The pastor thought that something was “seriously overlooked” on the coined currency of our nation, and by that he meant “the recognition of the Almighty God in some form on our coins.”

As a result, Secretary Chase instructed James Pollock, Director of the Mint at Philadelphia, to prepare a motto, in a letter dated later that month:

Dear Sir: No nation can be strong except in the strength of God, or safe except in His defense. The trust of our people in God should be declared on our national coins.

Working out some tweaks in verbiage along the way, in 1873 Congress passed the Coinage Act and had the motto, “In God We Trust” inscribed on all coins. But the use of this motto over the years did not go uninterrupted. And the Act only included coinage. Paper currency did not have the motto, In God We Trust, printed on it.

It wasn’t until a law was passed by the 84th Congress and approved by the President in July of 1956, some 83 years later, declaring “In God We Trust” the national motto of the United States. In God We Trust was first used on paper money in 1957, when it appeared on the one-dollar silver certificate. By October of the same year, In God We Trust was printed on every denomination of paper currency, and has been since.

I’ve found it curious over the years, why we continue to have this motto written on our currency. I wonder if this sentiment is really what is in our hearts: In God we trust.

I find it curious because we live in a culture and society that teaches, and well, preaches that our self worth is wrapped up in our own financial success. We are bombarded constantly with advertisements about what clothes to wear, what products to buy, and what vehicles we should drive. We are labeled as “consumers” by those who compete feverishly for the money that is in our bank accounts. In God We Trust. Do we even notice it on our currency anymore? This is especially difficult in a time when we use our debit cards and automatic payments for most of our transactions. But regardless of how we use our income, the question for me remains, ‘what does it mean to trust in God?’

The first Sunday in Lent always begins with the temptation of Christ in the wilderness, where he fasts for forty days and nights. There he is tempted by the devil three times.

Jesus’ forty days in the desert echo Israel’s forty years there. Like the people of Israel in their
exodus from Egypt, Jesus is out in the wilderness, hungry and tempted. “If you are the son of God,” the devil says, “command these stones to become bread.” In other words, if you really are either royal or divine, prove it by using your power to your own benefit. What kind of god sits around listening to his stomach growl instead of showing off his power and feeding himself? What kind of king ever goes hungry?
In response, Jesus places himself not among the privileged few but among the ordinary people of God. Quoting Deuteronomy, Jesus replies, “one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” For Jesus, being the Son of God means accepting his humanity and depending on God for daily bread.

After his first failure to lure Jesus into misusing his status, the devil tries again, taking him to Jerusalem (“the holy city”), to the very highest point of the temple. This time the tempter challenges Jesus to prove his identity by throwing himself down and letting the angels rescue him.

In the final temptation, the devil promises to give Jesus all the kingdoms of the world if only Jesus will worship him. The implications are stunning. The devil assumes that all authority in the world belongs to him, to give to others as he chooses. But Jesus orders Satan to leave, saying, “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.”

The temptation of turning stones to bread for food, the temptation to test God’s power to rescue, and the temptation to rule with power and influence, and his subsequent refusal of each, are not stories meant to set Jesus apart from us. Matthew does not tell the story to make us feel inadequate by showing us things that Jesus can do and we can’t. On the contrary! This story is meant to encourage us – because Jesus “was tempted in every way that we were, yet did not sin” reminds us that Jesus was tempted by the very things that we are tempted by, that is, dependency on our own doing and trust in ourselves by our own right. Matthew’s story of the temptations proves to commend the faith that is already in us.

The temptations of Jesus are not about that shady, sneaky devil that has nothing better to do than trip us up and make us bad people, not at all. These temptations are about Jesus putting his whole trust in God’s grace and love, intertwined in the life of Jesus that empowers us to do the same; with God’s help and grace.

Do you trust God?

Let’s go back to that first temptation in the Garden; the one that Adam and Eve blundered big time. The serpent offers Adam and Eve the promise of ultimate, God-like knowledge, at the outset of his exchange with the woman the serpent suggests that God is not trustworthy. The serpent begins, sowing the seeds of doubt, and then asserts, “You will not die,” contradicting the words of God.
Having undermined Adam and Eve’s confidence in God, the serpent then invites them to establish themselves -- that is, craft their own identity -- independent of their relationship with God: “when you eat of the fruit your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” Who needs God, after all, when you can be “like God” all on your own?

Now back to Matthew. While the content of the devil’s temptations include the capacity to turn stones to bread, call upon angels for safety, and the promise of power and dominion, each again is primarily about the devil trying to undermine Jesus’ trust in God. And I think the devil continues his work around us.

The question of whether we trust God is an important one. Because when we trust God, it shows; in our lives, in our dealings, and in our habits. It’s not to say that we won’t be tempted; we will be. Again, realize the consumer-driven culture that you and I live in. We are constantly being told that we are not smart enough, pretty enough, skinny enough, insured enough, or just simply not cool enough, unless we purchase “x”.

So we take matters into our own hands. And when we do, we believe that we must take control of our own lives. We nudge God to the side, and say that the stories we hear in church are nice, but we come to church for other reasons. When we take matters into our own hands we deny the promise of the trust we are to have in God that we made at our baptism. So we satiate our desires as we see fit. We test God to see if God will give us what we desire, rather than what we need. We seek reckless ambition to achieve status and wealth and to be accepted by others who have achieved the same.

David Lose writes inspiringly, “that Jesus resists [these temptations] not through an act of brute force or sheer will, but rather by taking refuge in an identity founded and secured through his relationship with God, a relationship that implies absolute dependence on God and identification with all others. Jesus will be content to be hungry as others are hungry, dependent on God’s Word and grace for all good things. He will be at risk and vulnerable as are all others, finding safety in the promises of God. And he will refuse to define himself or seek power apart from his relationship with God, giving his worship and allegiance only to the Lord God who created and sustains him.”

When we decide rather that we are not in control; that we are not owners of our lives and possessions, but that everything is God’s, then we don’t nudge God out of the picture of our lives. We place God at the very center of our lives. Why? Because we trust. And when we trust in God, we start seeing the world differently and acting accordingly.

When we trust God it becomes easier for us to follow his commandments; to love God and our neighbor, to put no other god before our God, to seek peace and justice among others, especially for the poor and those who differ from us, because we trust that God is in control and that God will work things out. To trust God is to love others.

When we trust God we more easily share our money and possessions and for the right reasons! We don’t use money to get our way or withhold money when something happens that we disagree with. Money should never be used as a weapon. Yes, I speak of the very money that has printed on it, “In God We Trust,” but too often it seems that it is the money that we trust, not God. So we grip tighter. So instead when we give as Christians, we do so generously, because we are God’s children and we trust that he is in control and will make all things right.

Today is the first Sunday in Lent. We began this holy season on Wednesday, but we begin anew today. We begin once again to look into our own lives and wonder how we can begin to trust God more. Jesus was not given special powers so he could ward off the evil one and continue on his merry way. No. Jesus trusted God. He trusted God when he was tempted, which was probably many more times than just three, he trusted God when he was betrayed, he trusted God when he was arrested, and he trusted God even to his death.

And during this season of Lent we are reminded of God’s grace all around us. The ashes on our foreheads from Ash Wednesday remind us more than that we are dust, but that we are God’s children. We are called to self-examination, but we are also reminded of God’s grace and love and forgiveness. May our focus this Lent not be our shortcomings, but rather the abundant grace that God continues to offer us in Jesus.


Monday, February 20, 2017

A Workable Trajectory

In the blockbuster movie, Hidden Figures, a little known story is told about a group of African-American women who helped NASA accomplish space travel. Adapted from Margot Lee Shetterly's book Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race, the film focuses on three real-life African-American female pioneers: Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson, who were part of NASA's team of human "computers." This was a group made up of mostly women who calculated by hand the complex equations that allowed space heroes like Neil Armstrong, Alan Shepard, and John Glenn to travel safely to space. Through sheer tenacity, force of will, and intellect, they ensured their stamp on American history—even if their story has remained obscured from public view.

In June 1941, with war raging in Europe, President Franklin Roosevelt needed to ensure the growth of the federal workforce. He issued an Executive Order which banned "discrimination in the employment of workers in defense industries or government because of race, creed, color, or national origin" (notice that gender is not included). Six months later, after the attack on Pearl Harbor brought the U.S. into the throes of war, NASA and Langley began recruiting African-American women with college degrees to work as human computers. As you might assume, African-American computers were paid less than their white counterparts and relegated to the segregated west section of the Langley campus, where they had to use separate dining and bathroom facilities. [i]

In the film, Hidden Figures, human computer Katherine Johnson, played by Taraji P. Henson, was shown running back to the west campus several times a day just to use the rest room; the colored rest room; 45 minutes round trip. Of course her boss, Al Harrison, played by Kevin Costner, was growing more and more frustrated with this woman who, hired to help with John Glenn’s trajectory, kept disappearing for long periods of time.

One rainy day, Mr. Harrison confronted a soaking wet and frustrated Ms. Johnson saying, ‘Where are you disappearing to? Where do you go all the time? I need you here!’ And her loud and rebellious response (you’ve gotta watch the film) caused Mr. Harrison stop what he was doing, go over to the west campus with an iron crow bar, and proceed to batter down the “Colored restroom” signs in front of all the employees. When the sign came crashing to floor Harrison said to all present, ‘There won’t be separate bathrooms anymore. Here at NASA, we all pee the same color.’

This moment in the movie stood out to me as much as any other meaningful and moving scene, of which there were many. You see, the Jim Crow culture of separate but equal, caused a problem for everyone. This stands as a good example of when one person, or group of people are treated differently or even oppressed, we are all affected. We all pay a price. The work that NASA was doing, and does, put lives at stake. Especially early on during the so-called space race when so much was unknown and unprecedented. The work Katherine Johnson was doing for these astronauts was so vital to their safety and protection of their lives. Her main job leading up to and during the mission was to double-check and reverse engineer the trajectory calculations. Having her continually leave the control room to use a restroom a half mile away and be absent from crucial duties simply because of the color of her skin was ridiculous, irresponsible, and detrimental to the mission. It is documented and included in the movie, John Glenn himself requesting that Johnson specifically check and confirm trajectories. He told the head engineer, “Get the girl to check the numbers... If she says the numbers are good... I'm ready to go." You need that woman in the room!

The scripture readings for today are completely wrapped up in our worth. God declares that you and I have worth. That those who differ from us have worth. St. Paul reminds us that we are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in us. These are beautiful and remarkable words; ones that tell us that we are of invaluable worth, but they are also words that demand something from us. If we are a holy people; God’s temple, then we are only so if we love our neighbors as ourselves. If we are a holy people; God’s temple, then we are only so if we not only forgive, but love our enemies.

Jesus teaches unprecedented mercy and forgiveness: “If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; 40and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; 41and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. 42Give to everyone who begs from you…” These are not instructions that undergird or encourage individualism, but rather instructions for those who live in a godly community; a temple that is holy and glorifies God.

Jesus then culminates this part of his teaching, which goes on for the next couple of chapters, by telling his disciples, and as always, the reader and hearer of this message, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Now, before you make up your mind that this is impossible and you shut your ears to the instruction of being as perfect as God, there is some good news here. It doesn’t let us off the hook, but a deeper understanding of this teaching is quite wonderful.

Let’s come back to the story of Katherine Johnson and her mathematics for a workable trajectory for John Glenn’s travel in orbit. “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” The word we translate “perfect” is actually the Greek word telos and implies less a moral perfection than it does reaching one’s intended outcome. For example, the telos of an arrow shot by an archer is to reach its target. The telos of a peach tree is to yield peaches.[ii]  The telos of NASA’s mission in 1962 was to bring John Glenn and his crew back to Earth safely. Telos, could very well be used synonymously with trajectory.

If our trajectory is realizing the kingdom of God, which Jesus describes at the onset of this fifth chapter of Matthew with the Sermon on the Mount, then the equations or formulas we must follow include loving our neighbors as well as our enemies; welcoming those who are not our family and friends; to go the extra mile for another; to pray for those who wish ill of us. These are examples of the steps we must take to meet our destination; to meet our goal, which is the Kingdom.

Katherine Johnson wrote these elaborate equations on a huge chalkboard in that NASA control room. Our huge chalkboard must include endless equations or examples of acts of love. Striving for the Kingdom, practicing acts of love and mercy and peace are what Jesus is telling us. “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” In other words, get on the trajectory that leads you to love and charitable thoughts of others. Our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry says in many of his great sermons, “If it ain’t got nothing to do with love, then it ain’t got nothing to do with God.” And he’s right. If it ain’t got nothing to do with love it doesn’t belong on our road map.

From the collect for 7 Epiphany, Let us pray.

O Lord, you have taught us that without love whatever we do is worth nothing: Send your Holy Spirit and pour into our hearts your greatest gift, which is love, the true bond of peace and of all virtue. In Christ’s Name. Amen.

[i] Blitz, Matt. (2017, February 3). The True Story of “Hidden Figures” and the Women Who Crunched the Numbers for NASA
[ii] Lose, David. (2017, February 14). Epiphany 7A: Telos.