In our daily prayers God was every manner of image and metaphor and meaning, and always, "God the Father." We never ever prayed to "God our Mother." What were women in the economy of God? The answer was only too painful: We were invisible. I had given my life to a God who did not see me, did not include me, did not touch my nature with God's own....Joan Chittister, "Called to Question"

Friday, December 24, 2010

Christmas I

A reflection on the readings for Christmas I:Isaiah 63. 7-9, Hebrew’s 2. 10-18, Matthew 2. 13-23 by the Rev. Dr. Sarah Rogers

I am writing this on 23rd December, while the pre-Christmas preparations are well underway. We have had more snow here this December than can be remembered for many years. I have spent today getting the church ready for Christmas, putting up the crib and the Christmas tree, arranging flowers – all the usual preparations with a couple of faithful helpers. Everything now looks very festive, we are prepared for the arrival of a very special baby, God’s son, the Saviour of the world.

While we were doing all this there was a general discussion about a series that has been on TV the last few days. The series, ‘The Nativity’, has retold the story of the birth of Jesus. The anxieties, trials and tribulations of Mary & Joseph, the rejection they faced from their families and communities. All told in a way that would appeal not only to Christians, but also to those on the fringes of Christianity, those more in the secular world, each 30 min episode had the typical cliff-hanger ending usually seen in soap-world. Alongside the main event were the side stories of a hot-headed young shepherd, Thomas, struggling to pay his taxes, with a wife who is ill having just given birth to a baby, and that of the Magi travelling from the east following the star to Bethlehem.
I was struck by the way Joseph was portrayed. A man very much in love with Mary, keen to build a house for her, to provide for her and the many children they will have. Then, after the annunciation she disappears to visit her cousin Elizabeth, he doesn’t know why. By the time she returns her pregnancy is obvious, he doesn’t understand. Mary had tried to find the words to tell him before she went, now anything she says to him doesn’t make sense, he just feels betrayed. Despite this, on her father, Joachim’s request he takes her to Bethlehem with him so that she is safe from those in Nazareth who want to stone her as an adulteress. He stays true to his vow, and helps her. He still doesn’t believe what she has to say and then he has a dream, revealing that the child she is carrying is the son of God. Even then, he STILL doesn’t believe all that he has been told. Then when the planets converge and the most wonderful star appears over the stable appears, Joseph finally returns to Mary’s side and grabs her hand as Jesus is born, and finally he believes. It was a tear-jerker..!
Then Thomas, the shepherd arrives and realises the hope that the baby brings with its arrival, as he reaches down and kisses a tiny foot. It was the side-story of Thomas the shepherd that seemed to grab the imagination of my parishioners. One of them said to me ‘we don’t know whether the shepherd’s baby is a boy or a girl, if it turns out to be a boy I will cry’. We didn’t actually find out the answer to that question. Of course, as Christians we know the full story, we know what happens next. The story on TV ended with the birth of a baby in a stable in Bethlehem and the shepherds and Magi coming to worship that baby as the Messiah. We wait for Series 2..!

The Gospel reading for the First Sunday after Christmas takes us beyond that. The arrival of that baby, the predicted Messiah, puts so much fear into Herod the King that he has all of the new-born children killed. Suddenly the world is filled with fear and dread as babies are killed, mothers are weeping for their children. Joseph, thankfully dreams again and takes Mary and Jesus to safety in Egypt.

Herod was running scared, he clearly wasn’t thinking straight, he was so absorbed by his desire for power, that the arrival of Messiah in the form of a tiny baby was too much for him. There are a number of things he could have done, befriended Mary & Joseph, taken Jesus under his wing, nurtured him, influenced him and so in the future extended his rule. He could have worked out that such a tiny baby wasn’t going to be any threat to his rule just yet, he had a few years to work out a strategy. He could even have laughed at the wise-men and refused to believe that the Messiah was about to arrive. Instead, he sees the threat as genuine and immediate, something to be stamped out straight away and so he kills.
This needless slaughter may indeed be the fulfilment of a prophesy, but it is not necessarily God’s will. Violence of any kind goes against God’s wishes for us. However, the story of Herod’s massacre of the innocents is echoed, far too often, in the news stories of today. This sort of needless killing is still heard about today, infanticide, murder, acts of war and terrorism. Not to mention the needless suffering of others in other ways. None of this is God’s will – he gives us freedom to make our own choices. Part of human nature is self-defence, the ‘flight or fight’ response when we are attacked. Some, like Herod, retaliate to a perceived threat, defending themselves to ensure their own security no matter what it costs others. I have no doubt that God knows all too well that this is all too often our response and he weeps because of it and feels the suffering that is endured.

But God came into the world as a child, a baby who needs His mother to care for him, to feed him, to hold him. Austin Farrer puts it like this:
“Yet Mary holds her finger out, and a divine hand closes on it. The maker of the world is born a begging child; he begs for milk, and does not know that it is milk for which he begs. We will not lift our hands to pull the love of God down to us, but he lifts hands to pull human compassion down upon his cradle. So the weakness of God proves stronger than men.” (from Said or Sung by Austin Farrer).

God choose to come into the world to draw us closer to him. He doesn’t fight back in the way we might expect he simply reaches out and draws us close in LOVE. Jesus grew up and chose to follow God’s will and die on the cross, and in rising again, he showed that even wrath and violence can never overcome or extinguish the love of God.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Advent 3

A reflection on the readings for Advent 3:Isaiah 35: 1-10; Psalm 146 or Canticle 3 or Canticle 15; James 5:7-10 and Matthew 11:2-11 by the Rev. Camille, Hegg

The collect for Advent 3 is one of my favorites:
Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us; and, because we are sorely hindered by our sins, let your bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with you and the Holy spirit, be honor and glory, now and forever. Amen.

I remember hearing this when I was a child and the priest talked about the day as “Stir up Sunday.” I always had the image of God standing at a stove and stirring a big pot of something that smelled good and tasted delicious. I imagined soup or the chicken and dumplings my mother made. The clearest and most present and pleasant image is that of the chocolate fudge she made. When she stirred it the smell was amazingly and delightfully magical. We kids couldn’t wait to taste it.

It was in the stirring of the pot that the smell came forth. In stirring the pot the vitality, the essence, were released. Also, expectation and hope. Expectation, of delicious soup or dumplings, or fudge! Hope, realized in the taste, and to a degree the delight in sharing. She usually made several batches of fudge and wrapped up packages to take to friends. The house smelled of chocolate all day. The kids got to help at all stages, including delivering the packages to the door of the designated recipients.

Until our 1979 prayer book this collect was used on “The Sunday Next Before Advent,” as it used to be called. How British/Anglican is that?! A parishioner who knows about these things told me that before everyone was taught to read, when that collect was read, the women knew it was time to go and mix and stir their fruit cakes and Christmas puddings. They knew Advent begins the next Sunday; Christmas is almost here. Fruitcakes and Christmas puddings need that much time to mature and ripen and come to their essence.

In the gospel this week John the Baptizer is in prison and sends his disciples to ask Jesus if he is the one to come. In Luke some translations read that the people were “on tiptoe in expectation.” That phrase always reminds me of being a child and standing on tiptoe to look into the pots, especially that pot of fudge! As I got older I got to be the one to stir and therefore release those delightful smells.

This particular Sunday evokes images of God which are very feminine for me. God as cook; God as the one who nourishes; God as the one who gathers the ingredients of creation and forms that which is new and delightful; God who invites us to the table; God who teaches us to go out and feed and clothe and soothe; God as the source of power which comes from care and not violence; God who invites us to live in expectation and hope.
All of the readings for this day remind us of the delight that is store for us. In the midst of things which we cannot understand- violence, poverty, power struggles in our own government and throughout the world, and so much more- we do well to remember as the Epistle says, to rejoice, to continue in prayer, hold on to good, let our gentleness be known to everyone.

My prayer is that we be instruments who are able to transmit, stir up, inspire in our friends and leaders that expectation and hope. Let us be on tiptoe expecting good things and stirring up the goodness that is in all of us and all humanity.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Advent 2 Claiming Hope in Despair

a reflection on the readings for Advent 2A by the Rev. Margaret Rose

In spite of a seemingly positive jobs report, this week marked the day that numbers of unemployed will lose their benefits. The death rate in Afghanistan is beginning to climb again and the negotiations on peace between Palestine and Israel are breaking down by the minute. The START treaty, despite being endorsed by the military, Republican and Democratic Generals seems to be dead in the water for this Congress. The homicide rate in New York is up, and a Congressman from Harlem who has done good work for many years in the House, now in his later years somehow forgot to pay taxes on homes here an abroad. Heroic sports figures in baseball, cycling and more are having their medals revoked, because somehow they felt they needed to cheat to win. And to top it off, it seems that terrorist attacks lurk on every corner and we will have our bodies scanned or patted with mistrust every time we fly. If the politicians are right, this is a season of fear and darkness and the chill of winter almost enfolds us in it. And if the news is right we should despair.
“You better watch out! And not just because Santa is coming to town.”

And yes. And yet. I have been astonished as I walk around my city which happens to be New York. It is actually Advent in Manhattan! And despite the fact that the so called secular world doesn’t have a clue about the preparations in Advent, hope is in the air. I know it is marketing and commercialism and all the things we often say we should avoid in this season, but sometimes the Holy Spirit is working in the world and those of us prone to more dire predictions will benefit by paying attention.

The lights, which of course are used by marketers beckoning us to up their bottom line also brighten the darkness on Fifth Avenue. The “Crown” in front of Cartier, the laser snowflake show at Saks took my breath away. The store windows once again tell the story of good times gone by and hope for days to come. New Yorkers and tourists are out walking, taking time in the middle of the day or early evening, risking good cheer to one another, defying the darkness and chill and to imagine the possibility of a future.

Something about this season does it to us. And I don’t think it is either denial or naïveté but expresses something deep in the heart of human being. And for my part it is some how the Holy Spirit who lives among us and offers these resilient moments for all of us.

In the church of course, we name it Advent and defy the darkness and the fear in a different way. and darkness of our time. It doesn’t take a Cartier Crown (spectacular as it was!). The very ground of our faith is that hope will win out over despair. From the prophets until today that is the message of Messiah’s birth. And if I am honest, the perils of today of 2010 are not so different from those I might have mentioned ten or hundred or two thousand years ago.

Take Isaiah. The 9th Century BCE was the era of the text today. Times were bad. Jerusalem was declining. The people, fighting small ethnic wars with their neighbors were embroiled in political in fighting. There was violence in the streets and the threat of invasion from without. The turbulence of present day Baghdad or Afghanistan would be a cakewalk for Isaiah’s time, except of course for the advanced technology (which could be another reflection by itself.) In any case, fear was the rule of the day.

Yet out of this social situation Isaiah’s witness arises proclaiming that God is present and the hope of the Messiah coming very near. Over and over Isaiah claims peace in the midst of war:

They shall beat swords into plowshares and nation shall not lift up sword against nation. The wolf shall lie down with the lamb, the leopard with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together. A little child shall lead them. The nursing child shall play over the hole of the cobra and the weaned child shall put a hand on the adder’s den. They shall not destroy in all my holy mountain. Waters shall break forth in the desert.

What a crazy idea. Was Isaiah naïve or in denial, proclaiming some future hope by and by that might or might not come to fruition? And how different this is from the apocalyptic vision of death and destruction we hear from the prophets of our texts in past weeks. Here in the midst of impossible odds, God’s realm of loving abundance promises to break through and create peace. With the coming of the Messiah, hope is to be born and reborn again and again. Good thing. We need it.

I wonder. What is it that makes us each year, from Isaiah’s time until our own reclaim this hope, believe that in spite of the odds or of history, things will be better next year, that we will make it through. What is it that makes us marvel at the lights, put up a tree, sing The Messiah?

There is no formula of course, no guarantee that despair will not win in the end. But there are witness who give us courage to face our own despair. The prophets of course but those of today as well. You can name your own I am sure.
For me, there is Mugisa from the Congo, who in spite of seeing her friends raped and killed, her own husband kidnapped for days, her house robbed, did become bitter or give up but started and empowerment project in her village.

Or a woman whose story I heard recently. Her name was Angela, a mother of four whose husband finally succumbed to the drug habit which had plagued him for years. Having not finished high school, she was relegated to low skill jobs, food stamps and welfare. Yet, in addition to her own four children she was adopting the child of a cousin who was soon to be homeless. “I do that,” she said, “because everybody needs a place to lay their head. We may not always have the gas and the lights, but they will have a roof and a little something to eat. You know, I don’t think of it as a bad life.” In order to continue ot receive assistance, Angela trained much to her delight, as a certified nurse’s assistant—a home health aide. She was glad to have the work even though it did not always pay well, and even though from time to time the clients’ racism was blatant. “Well,” Angela said, “Many of my clients are from another era, and there is a lot of prejudice. At first they are just mean and sometimes they call me nigger. But I say to myself: ‘Well, you may call me that, but I am the one here combing your hair and making you look pretty. I am the one helping you get out of bed in the morning, helping you get dressed.’ And you know what happens? Pretty soon that word nigger become thank you.”

Tears came to my eyes as I listened. Imagine a person, in the face of ridicule and racism, hanging in there, serving the needs of another, forgiving a world of pain and hurt and continuing to strive to make better for herself and her children. “It is okay,” she says, “and I think it will be better next year!”

Enough folk like these loving women will change the world. They are living out Isaiah’s vision. Not giving up and knowing that forgiveness and thank you are the way of hope. Is it their faith that gets these women through? Grace? Character? A good mother somewhere in the past? Whatever, they are witnesses for us offering hope and light in the midst of our own and the city’s shadows.

That is what the season is really about: light in the darkness, hope in despair. Isaiah said it. The city says it. Angela and Mugisa say it. It is what Paul says to us in the letter to the Roman. ( Remember, that early Christian community too, in the first century was persecuted and under siege. These Biblical witnesses and the stories of those who live in hope today are offered so that by steadfastness and encouragement, we too might have hope. It is not as easy as speaking the words. Hard times are real—in the world, in our own lives and communities, among those we love. But the Gospel reminds us that turning around, starting anew, indeed repenting –pointing in a new direction, is always possible.

The Advent message of hope remains. And St. Paul’s prayer at the close of the epistle to the Roman is our own: May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

The Reign of Christ (Christ the King Sunday)

Reflection on Luke 23:33-43 by the Rev. Dr. Kate Hennessy-Keimig

Well, as the GPS in my car says when we get to the end of the journey, “We have arrived.” In this Gospel lection, we have arrived with Jesus at his destination. Here on this cross where he has come to take his place as a final living and unmistakable testimony God's plan for God’s kingdom.

In this long run of Ordinary Time since the second Sunday after Pentecost we have been journeying with Jesus and the disciples as chronicled in the Gospel of Luke. We heard early on that “Jesus set his sights on Jerusalem,” and we have followed as he has called his followers, healed the sick, set people free from demons, raised the dead and preached and taught by word and example the radical message about the kingdom of God.
Luke has shown to us over and over examples of Jesus in action…the very same Jesus who came to us early in this Gospel with his mission statement taken from Isaiah, that his task was to bring “…., “good news to the poor...release to the captives...sight to the blind,[and] liberty [for] those who are oppressed.”

We have had ongoing lessons these past weeks from Jesus in the Gospels about the importance of ordering our priorities, letting go of our attachments, aligning ourselves with the poor and putting our riches and ourselves on the line for what we say we believe.

Jesus makes it clear again and again that his is God’s mission, God’s will and plan for salvation and that through his own life, death and resurrection, he is here specifically to manifest that plan to the world….to show us very clearly who God is, what God is really about and what God’s kingdom on earth is and can be because he also provides a way for us to be more like God. It is important that we understand that in inviting us to be part of bringing about God’s kingdom on earth Jesus was calling us to an entirely different way of being in relationship with each other and with God. Jesus proclaims a whole new reality where everything is changed. Not just the ruler, but the rules and the relationships are different in this realm of God. The very essence of who and whose we are, and how we are called to be is challenged.

It is also important that we understand that God’s kingdom, God’s realm, is here among us right now, happening this very day. Because Jesus was and is…lived, died and rose, we are citizens of this world and citizens of Jesus’ kingdom, too.

We live in two worlds. We understand that faith is no longer a private affair between us and God with no implications in our larger life, and because of that we cannot simply conduct lives as if this were not the case. And yet we must live in a world that will never completely abide by God’s love, compassion and justice either. It is a paradox for us and it creates a tension as we attempt to live faithfully as servants of this king of ours.

Many of us have had this experience, something happens in our lives and we just know that it’s one of “those opportunities” where God is calling and pulling us to that Gospel edge, those times when we feel acutely that tension between being part of creating God’s kingdom and living comfortably in this one. Those times when….

• We know are called to speak out for justice when it would be more prudent to be silent
• We are called to offer witness on another’s behalf when it would be safer to just mind our own business
• we are asked to use our resources to provide food or clothing or shelter for someone when we would much rather use them in other ways
• We are called to forgive someone when it would feel much more satisfactory to just nurse our grudge
• We are called to love when we would rather stay indifferent
• We are asked to be the one to take action when we would rather let someone else do it
• We are drawn into the messy, hard work of relationship with those difficult and demanding humans that God keeps gracing our lives with
• We are called to the radical hospitality that that allows for deep transformational connection, when we would much rather just be polite.

We may try to ignore these promptings, just hoping they will go away. And sometimes they do. But sometimes they don’t. God can be very persistent. We may accept the call and go on a journey with Jesus. And when we do, sometimes we make it all the way to Jerusalem, following him all the way to the cross. But more often, because we are so wonderfully human, we get stuck somewhere along the way. Because, like the young rich man, we have so many things we cannot leave, we walk away sad. Or frightened and threatened, like Peter, we might leave him in the courtyard…”Who me, no, I don’t know that Jesus fellow!” (In whatever guise he happens to be wearing that day). Lost, we flounder and falter, plummeting back into our earthy realm, forgetting who we are and who Jesus is.

This is our Jesus, this king of a different realm on that cross. The one who says “Father forgive them.” The one who says to the criminal at his side, “Today you are with me forever.” This is also the Jesus who says to Peter on the beach, “Do you love me? Then tend my lambs, feed my sheep.” This is the Jesus that calls us to mission, calls us to live and work in the world. To be citizens of this world yet not conformed to its expectations or limitations. This is the Jesus who calls us to live as he lived, forgive as he forgives, love as he loves and make God’s kingdom of Shalom a reality on this earth now. May it be so. Amen.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Proper 28C

A reflection on the readings for Proper 28C: Issiah 65:17-25; Malachi 3:13-4:2a,5-6; 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13; Luke 21:5-19 by The Rev. Jacqueline Schmitt

These lessons we read in the weeks before Advent are about a real paradigm shift: they are prophecies of the end times. We are getting ready to get ready, as it were, for the coming of the new reign of God.

Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I've tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.

That’s Robert Frost’s apocalyptic vision. This end-time business is vividly evocative. People do fear and dread the end of times. And yet to the person of faith, to the prophets and writers of biblical texts, these terrible things are not they end; they only come before something very good: the establishment of the reign of God.

Will you be reading the prophecy of astounding hope in Isaiah? The story of the new heavens and the new earth, of prosperity and abundance, of peace and harmony on the holy mountain?

Or will you go with Malachi, and his prophecies of the dark, stormy, severe Second Coming: “See, the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble ...” “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.”

Facing into the End Time is serious business. The people have not been living up to God’s standards, and which tack will inspire us into action? Do we require the harshness of the prophet’s words to shock us into remembering just who God expects us to be? Do we serve God or do we not? Do we know what it means to be righteous, to be just? Do we stand for the poor and the persecuted? Do we need to be scared into this realization, or have we had enough weeping and distress, as Isaiah would tell us. God has better things in store for us, so let’s act now as though the Messiah had indeed come.

Even Malachi gives us a foretaste of better things. There was a little phrase of Christmas buried in this reading, a glimmer of hope that God not only expects better things from us, but that God believes we can truly be the people God will reward: “for you who revere my name the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings.”

Being aware of the breaking in of something new is a good place to be as we look forward to the End Time and the New Time of the coming of Christ. We know what kind of people God expects us to be, and we know, in our souls, that God will give us the grace and strength to be those kind of people: to re-order the world so that the hungry are fed and the naked clothed and the poor given shelter and the lonely comforted. The wolves, lambs and lions among us will all live in peace.

The Gospel lessons, this week and next week, take us to Holy Week, to Jerusalem, to Jesus preparing for his passion and death. These are the readings where Jesus interprets what is to happen to him as a sign of the end time, and the advice he gives his disciples, and us, is harsh. What Jesus says will be overthrown is the current world order: the temple, its rulers, its privileged classes, the Roman Empire, its brutal taxes and its oppressive military. Not even familiar relationships will save you, Jesus tells his disciples. You can’t plan ahead for these terrible days; I will tell you what to say and what to do.

Jesus can scare us with these words because he knows the end of the story: he does rise with healing in his wings. We know the end of the story, too. We know that even if in this world institutions, powers and principalities crush and oppress, they will be torn down, and replaced with God’s commonwealth, of peace, of justice, of prosperity, of abundance.

But now, as we approach Advent, the church reminds us that most of what we are to do is to wait. Here in the northern hemisphere, the days are shorter and the world darker, and we wait for the earth to turn back to the sun, to warmth, to light. Just as we wait in the darkness of these end times for Jesus to come again and restore all things to God.

The collect for today was in the old English prayer book the collect for the second Sunday in Advent: “read, mark, learn and inwardly digest.” That’s what we do while we wait.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

All Saints' Day

The Communion of Saints

An invitation to conversation by Janine Goodwin

By some coincidence of scheduling, I was the person who wrote about All Saints last year. That piece can be found here. This year, I want to do something different. The questions are an invitation to respond in the comments and have a conversation in and about the communion of saints.

I believe in the communion of saints.

Do you?

What do you believe about the communion of saints?

I haven’t got a systematic theology of the communion of saints, but I may have caught a glimpse or two: here are a few stories and a few beliefs.

These are my stories:

My favorite childhood hymn in the Presbyterian church, and the one from which I learned to count 4/4 time at the age of five or six, was “The Church’s One Foundation.” My favorite verse was the last:

Yet she on earth hath union with God, the Three in One,
And mystic sweet communion with those whose rest is won.
O happy ones and holy! Lord, give us grace that we,
Like them, the meek and lowly, on high may dwell with thee.

I knew even then that I wanted that “mystic sweet communion,” that connection with all my ancestors in the faith.

When I memorized the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed as an earnest Lutheran eighth-grader, the phrase made me nervous, yet I found it attractive. It sounded very Catholic, and my family was quite anti-Catholic, yet I loved the idea

During my freshman year in college, I had a long argument with a friend from a fundamentalist church because she said a Catholic friend of ours wasn’t a “real Christian” and I believed she was. I later heard some, though by no means many, Catholics say that non-Catholics weren’t “real Christians.” By then, I had come to believe that figuring out who was “real” and who wasn’t was God’s problem, not ours, and anyone who indulged in it was missing the point and wasting time that could be better used out finding out how to do God’s work in the world together.

As a new Episcopalian in my twenties, I read Madeleine L’Engle’s words about finding one’s own saints; hers included St. Albert Einstein.

During my four years as a Catholic, I learned that among the many views of the communion of saints, the one I lived and believed went something like this: God is love, love is eternal, and death and time are unimportant in relation to love, so we can pray for the saints of the past and accept their prayers for us.

I met a doctor once who embodied this idea beautifully: we went to the same church and I was her patient. I asked her to pray for me. She smiled and said joyously, “Oh, I’ve already been praying for you for decades! When I started to practice, I started praying every day for all my patients, past, present, and future!”

This is what I believe:

I believe that the communion of saints is the community of all faithful people, past, present, and future.

I believe that it is not up to us to decide who is not part of that community of faith.

We may honor certain people who have let God shine through them with special clarity (and who have done so in a place and time where the institutional churches are able to accept and praise them), but those are not the only saints. Some are little-known, some unknown. Holy people exist in every faith and outside any faith; one of the holiest people I’ve ever known described himself as an atheist.

I believe that God works beyond our differences and limits and knows how to include where we, working out of our fear and pain, can only exclude.

I believe that community is not about staying silent because we fear offending others, but about speaking clearly, honestly, and as kindly as we can and having the courage to listen without needing to change each others’ minds.

I believe that even when reconciliation may look impossible, when it may not be accomplished in a lifetime in a family or a congregation or when differences between churches last for centuries, even then reconciliation will eventually happen, despite every block we put in its way.

I believe that St. Thomas More, the people he sent to death, and the people who killed him will all, as he hoped they would, be merry together in heaven.

I believe that if we prayed daily for everyone we are called to care for, past, present, and future, we would be a more vital and joyous part of the communion of saints.

What do you believe? What are your stories?

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Not In Our Pews

My sermon on Sunday was filled with personal stories from the time my family and I worshipped at our home parish. I returned to our home parish as a guest preacher and had a wonderful time, but my thoughts are not condusive to a reflection on the texts for this blog. Instead I offer this:

Last week I attended a workshop called Not In Our Pews intended to train clergy and social service providers on the issue of Domestic Violence/Intimate Partner Violence. Here is a review of that workshop which will be printed later this month in the newsletter for the Episcopal Women's Caucus. The EWC along with two other Episcopal groups are teaming up to sponsor 16 Days of Prayer for Activism Against Domestic Violence, which will take place in Advent.

Not In Our Pews
by The Rev. Terri C. Pilarski, licensed Episcopal priest in the Diocese of Chicago

The first congregation I served as Rector struggled with the reality that a prominent couple in the parish was going through a divorce, the wife a victim of years of domestic abuse. With the pending divorce the abuse escalated, and threatened to spill into the church itself. A few years later my friend and colleague at another church experienced a tragic domestic violence episode in her congregation. Throughout this time I learned that domestic violence was, by far, the primary cause of police intervention in our small but wealthy suburban community.

At a recent conference called, “Not In Our Pews” held in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin and sponsored by Project SAFE, an organization comprised of a number of religious institutions and service provider agencies in Wisconsin, I learned more about this all too common tragedy in our society. First, I learned that Domestic Violence, while still used for a variety of policy reasons, is often known as Intimate Partners Violence. This term expands the issue beyond the violence that occurs in some marriages to include a new awareness of violence in teen dating, in GLBT couples, and couples who do not live in the same house. Domestic Violence/Intimate Partner Violence is defined as: a pattern of abusive behavior in which a person uses coercion, deception, harassment, humiliation, manipulation and/or force in order to establish and maintain power and control over that person’s current or former intimate partner.

The conference goals were to: build partnerships between congregational leaders, service providers, and law enforcement programs; to provide faith and congregational leaders with strategies and resources to effectively and safely meet the needs of victims and families; to equip clergy and lay leaders to assist victims to make thoughtful decisions from a theological perspective while remaining in relationship with God and their faith community; to explore how faith communities might work to end Intimate Partner Violence; to help congregational leaders navigate a congregation that is impacted by Intimate Partner Violence. The keynote speaker was the Rev. Al Miles, an expert in Intimate Partner Violence prevention and treatment, and the author of several books on domestic violence including “Domestic Violence: What Every Pastor Needs to Know” 2nd edition, due for release in February 2011 (Fortress Press).

As clergy and lay leaders of congregations this conference emphasized the need for increased awareness of the prevalence of Intimate Partners Violence, including that which occurs in teen dating and elder abuse. We cannot hide behind a veil pretending that it only happens in certain demographics. The reality is this violence knows no boundaries and impacts equally every demographic across the spectrum from rich to poor, from educated to not, across lines of race and ethnicity, age and gender orientation. Congregations need to reach out to social service agencies that specialize in Domestic Violence and Intimate Partner Violence and work together to raise awareness and form responses to this rampant problem in our midst. 95% of reported cases of Intimate Partner Violence occurs with a man victimizing a woman. As clergy we have a responsibility to become educated and able to discuss Domestic Abuse/Elder Abuse/Teen Dating/Intimate Partner Violence in premarital counseling sessions, outlining what constitutes a healthy relationship, to recognize the warning signs when they appear, and to have an appropriate course of action. A healthy relationship does not include coercion, deception, harassment, humiliation, manipulation and or force in order to establish control and maintain power over a current or former intimate partner.

A few key points on what to do or not to do:
• do not attempt couple counseling when Intimate Partner Violence is a known element of the relationship.
• If a victim speaks up and shares her story, do not judge, do not put words in her mouth, do not encourage her to stay in the relationship, or leave, or use scripture as a means to further victimize her.
• Offer hope, leaving an offender is a process, victims want the violence to end not the relationship.
• Violence is a learned behavior, it is a conscious decision and a willful choice of the perpetrator to get what they want when they want it.
• Intimate Partner Violence is not caused by addiction to drugs or alcohol, stress, children, job stress, psychological illness, pets, Satan, and especially the abuse is not caused by the victim. It is not a problem of anger or control.
• It is a problem of entitlement and a demand to have their way when they want it.
• Do not think that you can assist the person alone, reach out for trained help from an appropriate social service agency.
• Provide congregational training on Intimate Partner Violence
• Provide resources that women can find in your church bathrooms that will help them find appropriate help including an emergency shelter for battered women. Likewise provide resources for men who are victims of abuse.

Intimate Partner Violence includes physical, psychological, verbal, sexual, pet or property destruction (if I can’t hurt you I will hurt what you love), and stalking. The tactics include, but are not limited to dictating how victims dress; to whom they can relate or not relate; what they can or cannot say and think; when the victim can or cannot study, worship, or work; describing the victim as disgusting, disrespectful, or using vulgar names like slut, stupid, whore.

When clergy and lay leaders are willing to become informed, educated, and trained, by reaching out and teaming up with social service agencies congregations can create healthier environments. Clergy and lay people are able to bring in the spiritual dimension of hope, grace, and love that social service agencies are often prevented from approaching due to the limits of their practice. By partnering together faith communities and social service agencies can work to create intervention strategies and prevention strategies for healthier communities.

Resources compiled by Safe Havens, interfaith partnership against domestic violence:

Articles and Brochures
Faith Trust Institute: “What Every Congregation Needs to Know About Domestic Violence” 1994 (206) 634-1903, Also, “What You Need to Know if a Child is Being Abused or Neglected”, 1992.

Fortune, Marie, “A Commentary on Religious Issues in Family Violence,” originally published in Violence in the Family: A Workshop Curriculum for Clergy and Other Helpers. Pp 137-151, The Pilgrim Press, Cleveland, 1991. Contact Faith Trust Institute: (206) 634-1903,

Peace At Home, Inc., “Domestic Violence: The Facts,” 1994-2004. Contact Peace At Home, Inc: 877-546-3737,
Safe Havens, “Guidelines for Working with Congregations Facing Domestic Violence.” Contact SafeHavens: 617-645-1820,

Adams, Carold J. & Fortune, Marie M., Editors, Violence Against Women and Children: A Christian Theological Sourcebook, The Continuum Publishing Company, New York, NY, 1998.

Afkhami, M. Safe and Secure: Eliminating Violence Against Women and Girls in Muslim Societies, Sisterhood Is Global Institute, Bethseda, MD, 1998. Contact Faith Trust Institute 206) 634-1903,

Friday, October 22, 2010

Standing in the Need of Prayer, a reflection on Proper 25C

A reflection the readings for Proper 25/C: Luke 18:9-14, by The Rev. Margaret Rose

Standing in the Need of Prayer

The Gospel text from Luke today--Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector in the temple reminded me of a children’s story called I’m Terrific. It is the story of Jason Everett Bear, who indeed in every way is terrific. He sweeps the floor and cleans his room regularly, always makes his bed, does his homework and gets enough sleep, and even eats spinach without complaint. He is very aware of how good he is and gives himself gold stars to mark the fact. Indeed his tongue often has a gummy feel to it due to licking the gold stars he offers himself for his daily good deeds. He reminds his schoolmates and neighbors of how terrific he is and give thanks to his mother that he is not like other people. Soon, however, it begins to dawn on the bear that he is rather forlorn and isolated in his greatness since no one can measure up to him. He thus decides to go the opposite route: never make his bed, pick fights with his friends, no more spinach , kick over nut piles carefully laid up by the neighborhood squirrel, tie knots in the fur of the Raccoon. This behavior gains him no less isolation than the former. And he finally understands that life is about give and take in relationship, Jason Bear then goes to each neighbor to ask forgiveness and friendship. The storybook character is neither a perfectly good bear nor a perfectly bad bear. He is in fact pretty much like his buddies--in need or forgiveness, redemption and love. This is a rather moralistic story, written to teach children about self absorption and showing off. But it does relate to Luke.

In the text for today, the Pharisee really is terrific. He is a solid citizen, a faithful hard worker. You really would want him on your vestry. Though we often tend to dismiss him as we read this text, since he is certainly arrogant and self-righteous, but he really is a good man. He has faithfully done what the temple required. He prays regularly, fasts more than the law requires and tithes, not just of the foods and animals that religious law requires, but of all his income. That is nothing to sneeze at. It would be as if we not only gave away a tenth of all Before Tax dollars and a lot more besides. The Pharisee is faithful and righteous.

The tax collector is not. This man who comes before God and stands far off to ask forgiveness, really does need it. He is not an IRS worker as we might know it. He is not a nice guy--maybe not as bad as the thieves and robbers that the Pharisee prays about-- but one who is known for collaborating with the Roman government. He comes, beating his breast, knowing his desperate need for God. He goes away with his prayers heard and deemed righteous.
It would be easy to dismiss this text as simply an attitude thing. But if I am truthful, I admit that I often identify more with that Pharisee than with the tax collector. I spend a lot of time and prayer on doing the right thing. And in the secret of my heart I have sometimes congratulated myself on the avoidance of really bad deeds. I have come close to deeming myself righteous and not quite like those miserable sinners so much in need of redemption. It is a subtle seduction. For we really are called to do good deeds and follow Jesus faithfully in tithing, praying and fasting and caring for others.

I remember some years ago, working in a soup kitchen at a Church in Boston. It was a place where many poor and homeless people came to hang out, so we began to know some of the folks fairly well. We regularly had lunch together and from time to time went on field trips. The big event of the year was the annual Lobster Fest which took place at a beautiful retreat center north of Boston. It was a great time and required an enormous amount of work on the part of volunteers. One year when the party was over and some of the volunteers returned to their cars, it was discovered that the cars had been broken into and money had been stolen--in all I think about 45 dollars though not much else. The convicting words came to the lips of those who had been wronged. Quick to accuse one of our group, the interrogative looks went round. It could have been any number of people who had been milling around the parking area and picnic grounds of the retreat center. But two of our number were identified as potential thieves though there was no real concrete evidence. “Why would THEY do this us after all we have done for THEM. Our money, our cars, our things have been violated. Of course they had. No question about it. It is wrong to steal. But how quick we are to assume that the one who wrongs us is not someone who looks or acts like us. How quick we are to deem ourselves and those like us as righteous--and to separate ourselves from those in so much need or even from those who are indeed miserable sinners.
How often does each of us thank God that we are not like other people. I do it when I read the local paper which seems to delight in front page embezzlements and the misconduct of sports and political figures. I hear myself from time to time thinking self-righteously that I would never be involved in such a thing.

But you know, though I do not like to admit it, I am the tax collector too. I am in my daily life as participant in sin as that man who made no pretense about his worthiness. And there are those moments I am so aware of my need for grace that I know that I am indeed like other people and standing before God in need of prayer. A message I no doubt need to hear.

The point of the story,of course, is that the Pharisee, as good as he is, really is also like other people. We are all in need of forgiveness. More important, we all stand empty-handed before God. We know this, in our hearts and minds and bodies, from time to time—often in our moments of suffering when we realize that no amount of good deeds can make things okay again. We simply ask God to hear our prayers--not because we have tithed or because we have been to church, but because we know our need for forgiveness and God’s love and power in our lives.

People who have battled the demons of addiction know it. Those who have been a part of 12 step recovery programs have it repeated over and over in the first three steps of AA--a recognition of one’s powerlessness over the addiction and the need of a power greater than ourselves to renew us to health.

In point of fact there is a bit of the Pharisee and a bit of the tax collector in us all. One Sunday, as we come to church to pray and worship we are patting ourselves on the back about how good we’ve been this week. And another week we come as miserable sinners, knowing that there is nothing left to give and that we have not done or been much this week worth being full of pride about.

Jesus calls us to confront the attitude of the Pharisee in our own hearts, this misplaced pride in obedience and to recognize that boasting of our virtue, however subtle, separates us from one another and from God. And to receive the fullness of renewal, love and forgiveness when there is nothing left in us but misery. His life, his death, and resurrection were for all of us, tax collector and Pharisee alike--all called to prayer and repentance. All offered forgiveness and renewal of life. AMEN

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Proper 24C

A reflection on the readings for Proper 24C: Genesis 32. 22-31, Psalm 121, 2 Timothy 3. 14- 4.5, Luke 18. 1-8 by The Rev. Dr. Sarah Rogers

Persistence – I think we have had a good example of that over the last few weeks. That persistence paid off when 33 Chilean miners were finally rescued after 69 days trapped underground. I’m sure that none of us who watched any of those men being brought home and reunited with their families can have failed to have been moved by what they saw. We can’t really know what they or their families endured during that time. But it is clear that a certain amount of persistence was required. Being under ground for so long posed a number of problems, those above ground had to get food down to the miners, there were nutritionists who made sure that they had a balanced diet, the miners themselves had to find ways of occupying themselves underground and the engineers had to work out a way of rescuing them. It seems that the miners lives below ground were structured by prayer, they had prayer services at 12 noon and at 6pm daily. I gather that an MP3 audio version of the bible in Spanish was sent to them through their family contacts, as well as an MP3 audio version of the Jesus film which tells the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection, a story that perhaps paralleled their own experience. They also took great comfort from the words of Psalm 95 verse 4 “In His hand are the depths of the earth, and the mountain peaks are his also’. Thankfully the perseverance of the Chileans paid off – and not only in prayer, but in working out the solution to a difficult problem - all 33 miners made it back up safely and there was much rejoicing..!

Today’s reading from Luke’s Gospel is a story about persistence. Taken in context it comes just after Jesus has been asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God will come. The Jews of Jesus’ time were of course living under Roman rule, desperate for the Messiah to come and liberate them from Roman oppression. Jesus tells this parable about the widow petitioning the judge for justice because that is what the Jews are also seeking. Some want more than justice, they want revenge.

Luke gives us a picture of a determined widow who brought an ungodly and unjust judge to his senses. Widows and orphans are often used in the bible as a symbol of vulnerability. This widow may be vulnerable, but she is also persistent and that is what wins the day for her. That picture of a persistent woman is a familiar one, I have heard stories of many women who are persistent, particularly when it comes to issues of justice – especially where their children are concerned. I’m sure that at least some of the Chilean miners wives on receiving the news that it would be Christmas before their husbands would be rescued would have badgered the authorities to get them back sooner!

This parable about the persistence of the widow is an important one, and Jesus uses it to teach us that persistence in prayer is vital. From that point of view I find this parable slightly confusing, because the woman is petitioning for something for herself, but not only that, for something AGAINST someone else. This seems to be contrary to what we are taught about prayer. We generally believe that prayer should be altruistic, concerned with the welfare of others, not ourselves. Praying for ourselves is selfish…or is it?

It can be very easy to get into the habit of praying for things that, actually, we don’t care about very much – because we feel we ought to pray for them. Perhaps we shouldn’t be frightened to ask for the things that we really want – at least then we are being truthful and honest and that is important if we are to build our relationship with God. I think that many of the psalms give us a prime example of what it is to be honest with God, they often involve heartfelt pleas to the Almighty.

We must remember that God cannot be fooled, he knows our deepest desires. When we pray silently, deeply and honestly we can acknowledge our inmost thoughts, the things that perhaps we dare not ever say out loud or tell anyone about. I remember my teachers telling me not to be afraid to ask questions – if you don’t know, ask – it is stupid not to! I am pretty sure that the same is true of prayer – there is no wrong way of praying, except to leave a prayer unprayed. We are after all only human, and we quite often make a mess of things, but we should be persistent with our relationship with God and that includes being honest about our deepest desires. We must pray in all sincerity for the things that we most care about. Our prayers may not always be answered, sometimes it might seem that God completely disregards our petitions, but we must be persistent, we must not give up asking. We must be persistent in all things, in prayer, in faith, in proclaiming our faith. We must never give up.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Proper 23C

A reflection on the readings for Proper 23 Year C: Jeremiah 29:1,4-7; Psalm 66:1-11; Timothy 2:8-15; Luke 17:11-19 - by The Rev. Camille Hegg

The reading from Jeremiah reminds me that for so long women did not have choices in whom they married. I’ll give Jeremiah credit: he was trying to foster hope and rebuilding of the Hebrews during the time of exile. But it’s all up to the men to choose wives for themselves to have sons; choose wives for their sons; and give their daughters in marriage.
Then, in Luke Jesus speaks to lepers, at least one of whom was a Samaritan. Presumably the others were Jews because he told them all to go to the priest to show themselves, as was Jewish law. I put these two together and now will put into a context that came back to me all over again.

It was 36 or so years ago. I was going through the discernment process for ordination to the priesthood. It was a strenuous process which lasted a year. In the “urban quarter” the entire twelve of us (only two women) were encouraged to focus on inner city issues. Among other things we were expected to visit singles, gay and lesbian bars and then reflect on the experience. Long story short, I had two ‘epiphanies’ in the lesbian bar. First, I was welcomed there just because I was a woman. I had only been in any kind of bar or social function with a man. Secondly, the place was raided that night and the bartender told me that happens almost every Saturday night. “Harassment,” I said to myself.
Let me be clear: I had processed this first visit to a gay or lesbian bar in the following way: I believe what Jesus said, “the truth will set you free.” Therefore, if the truth is that I can’t minister to homosexual persons because I am afraid or prejudiced, I need to know it. Further, if one is homosexual how much better for all of society that they be able to live freely, truthfully and safely. With a lot of anxiety my friend and I knocked on the door; and were welcomed. All of my stereotypes vanished during those moments of processing, anxiety, and welcoming of me because I am female.

Lepers of societies, who are they? Women, still, not welcomed, treated as property, abused by employers, governments, male partners and some women; gays; lesbians; blacks; Muslims; Jews; the poor; the ill; foreigners; immigrants; the Other. Whoever is in power seems to abuse, exclude or ignore in order to maintain their power.

And yet, Jesus, over and over, went to the powerless and treated them with respect and dignity. He broke through barriers and called into question authorities and rules which dehumanize another person. In so doing he healed them. Someone has to make the first move to begin to break those barriers. In this story it is they, the lepers who make the overture to Jesus. Jesus took them seriously. Surely that should be my role, the church’s role.

In the Kingdom of God outsiders are welcome. However, neither I nor the church should be the one to wait for the “outsiders” to make the first move. But both I and the church should be the first to listen to those who plea for recognition, healing and health.

Epiphanies are in store for all of us when we seek truth, justice and healing for ourselves and others.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Proper 22C

A reflection on the readings for Proper 22C: Lamentations 1:1-6, 2 Timothy 1:1-14, and Luke 17:5-10, by The Rev. Terri C. Pilarski

It’s early in the month of May, in the year 1848. A young woman boards a ship with two small children in tow, a four year old boy and a two year old girl. The woman is three months pregnant and with her two other children is about to embark on a five month journey from Manchester, England to NYC and then across the United States to Utah. She leaves behind her husband, who will continue to work, earning money to support his family as they make the long journey. The father will follow in a year or so.

The woman and her children cross the Atlantic Ocean; it takes more than six weeks on the ship. A tragic outbreak of small pox claims the life of her two year old daughter. Landing in New York the mother and son take a boat and train from the coast, along the St. Lawrence Seaway, across Illinois to St. Louis. There they meet up with other members who are gathering for the wagon train journey. Soon they will travel northwest through Missouri into Iowa, across Nebraska and Wyoming, arriving some 13 weeks later in Utah. The wagons carry their possessions, the people walk. The woman, now five months pregnant walks too, and by the time she arrives at her new home she is 8 months pregnant. A month after her arrival at her new home she gives birth to a healthy baby.

This woman, my great grandmother, five generations back, made this journey for her faith. For me she stands as a powerful witness of faith in the face of adversity, suffering, and struggles.

For several weeks now the lectionary has offered us readings from Jeremiah. But, today’s reading takes us away from the prophet Jeremiah and offers us instead a reading from Lamentations. Although the author is unknown Lamentations is often considered to have been written by Jeremiah. It’s a collection of laments, in poetic form that echo poems that were common in ancient Mesopotamian cities. In this reading the narrator is actually a city, crying out from deep suffering, blaming God for the pain of the residents of that city. God, the narrator believes, has punished the people for failing to remain faithful to God, and now this voice cries out in sorrow and shame. Losing faith, losing sight of God comes with heavy consequences, or so this passage seems to tell us.

The Letter to Timothy suggests something else. Perhaps suffering is less the act of a punishing God, and more the reality of what people feel when, for some reason, they become disconnected from God. Suffering is not so much the consequence of punishment inflicted by an angry God but more the consequence of our actions and what it feels like when we are separated from the God who loves us. More than that, I surmise that suffering is an aspect of life, it just is. No matter what, the one thing we humans all have in common is suffering. We all experience times in life when we struggle and suffer, sometimes as a result of our own actions or the actions of others, sometimes the cause of our suffering is random, a storm or an illness. Regardless these times of suffering challenge our faith. We cry out to God, feeling abandoned in the desert, suddenly residing in the deep night of the soul.

John Newton, known to us as the author of the hymn "Amazing Grace," also authored a profound book on the spiritual life and the struggles of faith. He was a ship owner and slave trader before becoming a priest in the Church of England. He went through a mighty conversion and from this change of heart worked to end the slave trade and wrote Amazing Grace. He spent his last years as a parish priest in London. In the Works of John Newton from the section titled "Grace in the Ear" Newton lays out a cyclical three step process of the faith journey.

The first step is "Desire." A person has a sudden experience of God and a desire to grow in faith. The person has a profound sense of awe, and a new found awareness of God's grace and love. This first phase is like the Hebrews freed from Egypt, it brings with it a sense of elation. Eventually this “awe-filled” sense of God’s love and grace shifts and the second phase begins.

The second phase is "Conflict." This is the "deep night of the soul" phase where one wrestles with God, with faith, and often faces challenges that were not experienced in the first phase of Desire. If Desire is marked by elation like that of the Hebrews freed from slavery, this phase is marked by a sense of being lost; it’s the Hebrews wandering in the desert for 40 years. Ultimately this is a time of growing more dependent on God and deepening our trust in God as we travel through one challenge or another. This second phase is the longest phase in the spiritual journey.
The third phase, which Newton calls contemplation, is marked by an internal shift, a sense of peace prevails despite the obstacles.Filled with a sense of peace, one becomes less emotionally engaged in the challenges and more able to view them with some distance, having finally learned to put one's trust in God. Newton is careful to spell out that one is not necessarily a better believer or person in one phase or the other, rather one's sense of dependence on God increases through each phase.

This reminds me of a Mary Oliver poem:

The Uses of Sorrow

(In my sleep I dreamed this poem)

Someone I loved once gave me
a box full of darkness.

It took me years to understand
that this, too, was a gift.

(Mary Oliver)

Paul reminds Timothy that he inherited from his mother and grandmother gifts of faith which will sustain him through the trials and tribulations of his life, even those that threaten his faith. Paul says: I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that lived first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, lives in you. For this reason I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you....

In the midst of deep suffering it can be difficult to imagine rekindling the gift of God that is within us. The odd thing is, we don’t actually rekindle it. God does. Somehow in the midst of despair, if we remain diligent in our prayer and practice of faith, even through those times when it feels futile, there rises within us a new sensibility, of hope, of peace, that can only be of God. I don’t know how this works. I only know that it is true. God has hold on me, on you. Somehow, being held in God’s embrace, infuses this peace, this hope, into our beings.

I wish I could say that once in Utah, and especially when her husband joined her a year later, that all was well for my great, great, grandmother . I wish I could say that she lived a life content in her faith and grateful she had made this journey. But I’m not sure that’s the case. Historical records indicate that this great great great great grandfather followed the tradition of that church at that time, the 1800’s and took additional wives. He even spent time in jail for polygamy. Some in that church consider him a saint. My great great great great grandmother divorced him and spent the last of her days dependent on her children, poor and struggling. Somehow though she retained her faith, despite the many heartbreaks she suffered.

Recently I watch the polygamist family from Utah, who star on the realityTV show, Sister Wives, talk about their family and their faith on the Today Show. It seems, unlike my ancestors, that these women all feel equal and experience this “marriage,” this family as healthy. At least that is what they are saying publically. Most often though equal and healthy are not the case in plural marriages. Plural marriages tend to treat women as property, conflict and competition rises amongst the women. Young girls are denigrated and married off at tender ages to older men who often mistreat them. Often women and girls have no choice in who they marry, this being a transaction between men, fathers and husbands-to-be. Many women in plural marriages live unhappy lives and are frequently abused.

While suffering is part of life, I do not think that God calls us into lives of suffering for the sake of faith. This is especially true in our most intimate relationships, which ought to be life-giving not life-taking. Marriage is intended to mirror the love of between God and humanity, a love that ought to raise up each person and help them become the best person they can be. It is not love when one person is chattel, owned and governed by another. A life of faith is not intended to be a life of abuse, pain, or suffering.

Likewise, a life of faith does not mean that our lives will be like a Cinderella story, and all will work out in the end. But then again, in a way it does .Life has a way of throwing us curve balls and challenges. We sometimes think that a life of faith means our problems ought to disappear or we will never have problems in the first place. But as we all know the circumstances of our lives will bring challenges; just because that’s life. However a life of faith will remind us, over and over again, that we are held in the hand of God. Our faith, though it be small like a mustard seed, is enough. Timothy reminds us that God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but a spirit of power. Moving through the challenges of life we find a profound sense of peace arises in us. God’s grace is powerful. God’s grip on us is powerful and God isn’t letting go.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Proper 21C

A reflection on the readings for Proper 21C, Pentecost 18C: Amos 6:1a, 4-7 and Psalm 146, 1 Timothy 6:6-19 , Luke 16:19-31 by the Rev. Dr. Kate Hennessy-Keimig

Three readings…all on a common theme this morning. “Alas for those who are at ease in Zion”….or anywhere else for that matter, Amos tells us, “the revelry is not the goal.” And Timothy too, echoes the message, it’s easy to be trapped by desire and attachment to riches and the things of this world. But we are urged to “set our hopes on God…to do good, be rich in good works, generous and ready to share, so that we have the life that really is life.” And in the Gospel…. again we are reminded what Jesus thought about what was important, and it is NOT the riches of this life!

We have had an ongoing lesson these past weeks in the Gospels from Jesus about the importance of ordering our priorities, letting go of our attachments, aligning ourselves with the poor, putting our selves, our riches on the line for what we say we believe. We are being reminded in many ways why we are here, and that is it is not for ourselves but for the world. This message is very consistent with the thoughts of our new bishop in the Episcopal Church in Minnesota, with the idea that the church does not exist to extend the church but to participate with God in co-creation of God’s kingdom here on earth, a kingdom of justice, compassion and reconciliation, and that we are called to mission.

We come together to worship on Sunday because worship is central to our common life as a community not for its own sake, but in order to support and equip us to make a difference in the work we do in our own mission fields seven days a week. We come to be fed on Word and on Sacrament together in order that we might remember who and Whose we are, in order to be strengthened for what we are called to in the rest of our lives outside this place.

A while back I heard a comment I heard at a clergy conference from one of my colleagues on another TM team that made me think. He talked about how since he has been ordained, he feels a new sense of responsibility wherever he goes because he feels as though people have identified him as a representative of the church, as a sort of “professional Christian” and that they watch how he handles himself in his daily life. How he responds to conflict, how he deals with people….and as I listened to him I thought, you know, this ought not to just be true for someone who is ordained, but for all of us who are baptized, because truly we are all called to see Christ in others and be Christ’s presence in the world. And there is a way in which the world should be able to watch and see God’s Spirit operating in us, see something in the way we act, the way we ARE that sets us apart. That is what mission is about. That is what ministry is about. And each of is called to it. Every one of us walks daily in several mission fields. At home. At work. Where we spend our leisure time. Every one of us functions in our local community and are also citizens of the wider world. And in each of these places there are chances every day to participate in God’s creative reshaping of this world into God’s kingdom. And in each of these arenas we are being called upon to ask ourselves what is the mind of God in this situation and then to act out of that. And we don’t do this in a vacuum. We have Jesus as the role model. Not so much in terms of that little phrase “what would Jesus do” as how would Jesus BE, or what is the mind of God. In these Gospels Jesus is making very clear how it is we are called upon to reflect the mind of God. We are called, in all these mission fields of our lives to do the just thing, to do the most inclusive thing, to do whatever the act is that most widens the circle and draws others in. We are called to do what considers the good of those most in need, the poor, the weak, the vulnerable. We are called upon to forgive. We are called upon to be just. We are called upon to reconcile. We are called upon to be peacemakers. Jesus came to literally “change our minds,” to transform our whole viewpoint, to give us a bigger picture, a glimpse of the possible world as God sees it. Through our baptism, we are covenanted to follow this vision, to incarnate it in our own lives as Jesus did in His. We are all vocational, called to ministry and mission. There is really no escaping it, we were marked as God’s own at baptism, and we are challenged to count the cost and pick up the cross. More than it ever has the world needs to hear another voice. The voice that cries out for justice, and compassion and reconciliation. This is God’s mission, not ours. Our job is merely to respond. To use our own individual gifts and talents to participate as we are called, where we are called, actually many times, every day, if we are paying attention… our own mission fields.

We are given the opportunity to participate in something more than the life of this world. We are given the opportunity for eternal life – God’s kingdom life – the countercultural life. Not the life that is merely about storing up our riches here on earth. Not the life that is about looking for the best place for ourselves. Not the one that is about doing the things that will get us noticed and rewarded. But the life that says what we see before us is not how it can be, how it should be. The life that we are offered is the one exemplified in Jesus. It is the one we can claim through our baptism and the power of the Spirit. We make the world we live in different one day at a time, one act at a time by the way we live our daily lives in mission and ministry. May it be so.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Proper 20C

A reflection on the readings for Proper 20C: Amos 8:1-12, Psalm 138, 1 Timothy 2:1-8, Luke 16:1-13 by Janine Goodwin, M.S. Ed., M.A.

It’s another complicated week in the lectionary. Amos cries out against injustice in a way that may be very uncomfortable for our country, where CEO’s salaries have ballooned out of all proportion to those of their workers while many people go unemployed, have no healthcare, and deal with food insecurity. The psalm is a peaceful song of trust. The epistle urges respect for authority and promotes a quiet and peaceable life; the Gospel seems to undercut that, as Jesus, who faced conflict wherever he went, tells a strange story about a cheating steward and says things that are difficult to understand until we reach the stark, “You cannot serve God and wealth,” which is easy to understand but is not easy to hear.

Sets of readings like this one remind me of two different but recurring experiences.
In the first, I am with people of faith. I am in a church. We are all sitting quietly, nicely dressed, in a beautiful building, most of us looking tranquil (and some of us looking downright sleepy) as some of our number read cries of prophetic outrage, wildly puzzling stories, and sayings that threaten to change our lives completely, all in calm, matter-of-fact voices. I look around, thinking, "Is anyone else noticing how weird and scary this stuff is? Has everyone else found a way to deal with it that I don’t know about? What would happen if I asked these questions?"

In the second, I am listening a person who does not share my faith or anyone else’s, someone who is eager to explain to the world that any life of faith is simply a pathetic attempt at self-soothing by people who can't handle tough reality. I think about the incomprehensible passages and impossible demands I find in Scripture, the lives of the people we celebrate in the church calendar, the way study and prayer turn up more challenges and questions every time I practice them, and my own experience at trying (and mostly failing) to live a life based on faith, and sigh. Sometimes I wish they were right, because the placid and deluded life the person is describing sounds easier than mine.

In both cases, I am confronted by the terrors of faith. Scripture, when it is not smoothed over and harmonized out of the individual voices from which it came, is a contradictory, challenging, sometimes shocking thing—and sometimes it really is incomprehensible. There are dozens of studies on the meaning of the parable in the reading from Luke, there are lots of good potential answers, and it’s even more difficult and full of potential meanings than most parables; no one is ever going to be sure exactly what’s going on in it. Maybe the steward is getting back at an unjust master who is trampling on the needy. Maybe he is putting relationships ahead of material goods. Maybe he is crooked and his crookedness is a sign of the world’s corruption, and Jesus is using him to make a satirical point. (These and other intriguing interpretations can be found on this week’s page at

The life of faith is not cozy. Scripture is not always a comfort. Tradition can anchor us in a changing world, but tradition itself has to change as we face new circumstances. Ignoring it can end in a loss of many gifts; worshiping it leads away from living in the present. Our reason is limited and can lead us astray, especially if we use it to fuel denial and wishful thinking. This does not mean that scripture, tradition, and reason are useless, only that they cannot give us the certainty that we sometimes wish they would. I have come to believe that faith is not a matter of knowing the answers to every question, or of thinking God has them written up ahead of time and will dispense them if we ask, or of making up answers because we need them; it is a way of living based on the belief that a God who loves us is helping us do the best we can and understand as much as we can, if we will do our part, in a world that is flawed and painful. Faith is not about reading a map, but about deciding which way to go when there is no clear path, trusting in the companionship of God and each other.

The person who calls faith a comforting delusion has a point; she’s describing something she’s seen. It is a form of idolatry that happens when we worship certainty instead of seeking a living relationship with a living God. It is possible to imagine a God that holds everything in rigid control instead of one who gives us free will and allows us to experience the consequences of our actions. It is possible to take only the assurances of God’s real love and care for us and make a faith that is all about comfort. It is all too easy to assign ourselves the role of the good person, the righteous person, the persecuted person in every story. It is possible to hold such a faith without ever engaging with the troubling demands and the strange utterances of Scripture, and without ever seeing the ways in which we might be the sinners, the unclean, and the persecutors. It is possible to sit in church and not hear how dangerous the life of faith can be, even when those dangers are being preached. I’ve tried all those things myself, and watched them fail. Private griefs and public disasters can shatter a faith like that in an instant. At that moment, the person who has lost a false faith may come to believe that faith itself is an illusion, rather than realizing that what they have lost was never really faith.

Losing a false faith is terrifying and freeing. When we give up the need for certainty, we can choose to trust a God who is greater than our attempts to control or explain our surroundings. We are free to question Scripture, tradition, and reason, and in questioning, we are free to really listen to them and to receive their gifts rather than trying to force them to supply answers that support our preconceptions. We are free to hear all kinds of ideas from others, to have our own ideas, and to hold them lightly lest we make them idols to replace the broken ones. We are free to meet angry assertions of the one right way with the calm knowledge that only God knows the full truth and that we do not have to convince others of God’s will for us. Instead, we have the far more difficult task of working out our own salvation in fear and trembling, knowing God is at work in us.

Once we have faced the terrors of faith, we can find the living comfort that does not negate them but grows out of them: that whatever our uncertainty, God is with us, just as God is with our enemies and those we have harmed. God is working with us, and together, we are working things through, working them out. Whatever is happening in the world and in our lives, there is no one who does not matter to God. The responsibilities are great and we are called to be faithful. Luke Timothy Johnson, working on the parable of the steward, uses “reliable” where most translations use “faithful,” a change which reminds me that the life of faith is a matter of small daily actions as well as great decisions, of habit as well as crisis. The comforts of faith do not negate grief and uncertainty, but help us face them with honesty and courage. Thanks be to the God of weird and scary stuff.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Proper 18C

A reflection on the readings for Proper 18 C By The Rev. Jacqueline Schmitt

What a powerful combination of texts we have for this week:
• Jeremiah at the potter’s house, seeing the vessel in the potter’s hand smashed at its very making, in order that something else can be made.
• Jesus, harsh and serious, ripping disciples away from every tie that binds, other than following him; describing the building of the kingdom as something that requires sustained, disciplined and ruthless planning and execution.

The two metaphors come together in Jesus’ illustrations of what it takes to bring about the reign of God. The king, who wishes to wage war, evaluates the situation and pulls back – even negotiates a peace treaty – with an enemy which he cannot defeat. A tower cannot stand unless it is built on a firm and careful foundation. Like the potter who smashes the imperfect vessel – regret and remorse seem not to be part of the equation – God is altogether willing to bring down inadequate responses to the divine will in order that something new can come into being.

I am in the middle of my sermon preparation, and will just share some thoughts. I am not yet sure where to go with them all yet. For the past few weeks, I have been drawn to Walter Brueggemann’s work on Jeremiah. What took me there was the challenge of the first of these readings, two weeks ago – that God will pluck up and pull down, destroy and overthrow – and only then build and plant (!!) – how possibly to preach on this to a little down-and-outer congregation??

It helps to re-read Brueggemann now. It helps for him to categorize Jeremiah as (1) affirming the old Sinai covenant between God and the people, the covenant which the people of Judah have not followed; (2) articulating with powerful poetry the deep pathos of God – God who does not want just to curse and punish the people for their transgressions but yearns to stay in relationship with these people, yearns for so much more for them and with them; and (3) pronouncing a devastating critique on the temple-priestly establishment that thought they were above the judgment of God, that God’s favor was secure in them and their way of life. The new imagination which Jeremiah brings forth – even from that very first chapter, the snippet of the prophet’s call which we read in church – is that God has something entirely new in store for us. We can know that the new is coming even while we are still living under that establishment theology, that empire, that domination system that will only bring death, because it is so far from the covenant life of justice and mercy that God intends. We can know the new is coming only in our imaginations, only in our hearts, because not even Jeremiah the prophet was predicting or planning what that new covenant would exactly be.

All of us in “the mainline church” are facing a crossroads of judgment on our institutional life. In some places, like my little church, the crisis of unsustainability is here. Other churches have enough money or people to keep going as they are. Others have, blessedly, begun to take the leap into the imaginative new.

My husband preached on these propers (the BCP version) in 1995, part of a sermon to a little suburban congregation that was about to call a new vicar and embark on some ambitious plans to re-start and re-imagine who they would be as a congregation, in hopes to soon become self-sustaining and off diocesan support.

There are times in our lives when heroic and self-sacrificing decisions have a wonderful appeal. These times are moments of insight, are points of encounter with the Holy, are answers to prayer or are answers to searching for meaning in life which is to say again are answers to prayer, ours or someone else’s These are times when we are at our best and the same time at our worst These are times when we glory in discovering a truth and being true to that discovery, hang the consequences, the zeal of the convert, the newly saved, the newly convicted. Think about it; doesn't scripture support that position this morning?

Jesus says... and you quote scripture...sometimes out of context. Jesus says, renounce. The trouble with Christ here is that he is arrogant; with him there are no other loyalties. Family, Business, Nation, Self and all these considerations are important to any healthy person with a sense of self and an ounce of self-respect.

But look at Jesus own life and you begin to question: his family turned away, his nation rejected him, his friends fell away to one and then none! SO are we ready for this? Is this the kind of example we wish to follow? This is our leader, Our Lord, and he is not controlled or owned by nation of national self-interest, or by prayer in school or the right to life issue or by the Episcopal Church or the Roman Catholic Church or any other church. This is our leader and he is a real radical, he even requires us to renounce the self-satisfaction and tyranny of knowing that we have discovered the truth, that we are saved.

The church in question worked hard for a few years, and then it closed. That may be a fate facing many of our congregations. How can Jeremiah’s interpretations of the events which led to the destruction of the temple and the exile in Babylon help us discern the signs of our times, of what God is subverting and destroying? How can we find the peace of mind to allow God’s imagination to work in us, so we can see what new thing may be emerging?

Sunday, August 29, 2010

For Proper 17C

This weeks offering comes from The Rev. Karla Jean Miller:

This is not what I am preaching on, but I love this parable by the Sufi poet, Rumi. A colleague, who is going through some really horrible chemotherapy, shared it on her blog. Like a parable of Jesus, every time I read it, there is something different to learn. So, in the spirit of the parable in today’s lectionary, I share this parable.

Jesus on the Lean Donkey by Rumi

Jesus on the lean donkey
This is an emblem of how the rational intellect
Should control the animal-soul.

Let your spirit
Be strong like Jesus.
If that part becomes weak,
Then the worn-out donkey grows to a dragon.

Be grateful when what seems unkind
Comes from a wise person.

Once, a holy man,
Riding his donkey, saw a snake crawling into
A sleeping man’s mouth! He hurried, but he couldn’t
Prevent it. He hit the man several blows with his club.

The man woke terrified and ran beneath and apple tree
With many rotten apples on the ground.
You miserable wretch. Eat.”
“Why are you doing this to me?”
“Eat more, you fool.”
“I’ve never seen you before!
Who are you? Do you have some inner quarrel with my soul?”

The wise man kept forcing him to eat, and then he ran him.
For hours he whipped the poor man and made him run.
Finally, at nightfall, full of rotten apples,
Fatigued, bleeding, he fell
And vomited everything,
The good and the bad, the apples and the snake.

When he saw that ugly snake
Come out of himself, he fell on his knees
Before his assailant.
“Are you Gabriel? Are you God?”
I bless the moment you first noticed me. I was dead
And didn’t know it. You’ve given me a new life.
Everything I’ve said to you was stupid!
I didn’t know.”
“If I had explained what I was doing,
you might have panicked and died of fear.
Muhammed said,
‘If I described the enemy that lives
inside men, even the most courageous would be paralyzed. No one
would go out, or do any work. No one would pray or fast,
and power to change would fade from human beings,’

so I kept quiet
while I was beating you, that like David
I might shape iron, so that, impossibly,
I might put feathers back into a bird’s wing.

God’s silence is necessary, because of humankind’s
Faintheartedness. If I had told you about the snake,
You wouldn’t have been able to eat, and if
You hadn’t eaten, you wouldn’t have vomited.

I saw your condition and drove my donkey hard
Into the middle of it, saying always under my breath,
‘Lord, make it easy on him.’ I wasn’t permitted to
Tell you, and I wasn’t permitted to stop beating you!”

The healed man, still kneeling,
“I have no way to thank you for the quickness
of your wisdom and the strength
of your guidance.”
God will thank you.”

Saturday, August 21, 2010

That Which Limits Us Is....

A reflection on the readings for Proper 16C: Hebrews 12:18-29 and Luke 13:10-17 by The Rev. Terri C. Pilarski

Perhaps you heard the story on the news this week about Jane Lang, who with her Seeing Eye dog Clipper leading the way, walked to the Morris Plains, NJ train station Tuesday to travel to the Bronx for a Yankees game. Although she’s taken this route before, Tuesday was different, because members of the Yankees baseball team joined her.

Manager Joe Girardi, pitchers Joba Chamberlain, David Robertson, Chad Gaudin and former Yankee Tino Martinez met the 67-year-old Lang at her home as part of the team's HOPE Week. HOPE Week (Helping Others Persevere & Excel) is a unique week-long community program aimed at bringing to light five remarkable stories intended to inspire individuals into action in their own communities. Initiated in 2009, HOPE Week is rooted in the fundamental belief that acts of goodwill provide hope and encouragement to more than just the recipient of the gesture. (

Lang has been blind since she was 22, but that hasn’t prevented her from going to games where she listens to radio broadcasts in the stands so she can react to the action. The Yankees have an Americans with Disablities Act director who knew of Lang and nominated her for the honor. "She's obviously a person who's very humble," Girardi said while waiting for the train. "She was saying she didn't think Hope Week was for someone like her." Gaudin, too, was impressed by Lang's approach to life. "She's excited about being alive ... That's the inspiration she gives everybody. "Lang said she did not let blindness negatively impact her life." You have to live in the world the way it is, not the way you wish it was," said Lang, who began regularly attending Yankees games, after learning the route via subway. She said she goes to about 30 games a year. (From the

Each of us here could probably share a story of someone we know who is struggling and has become a source of inspiration. Each of us here probably is or has at one time struggled as well with some sorrow or tragedy or unexpected misfortune. Life is unpredictable, things happen, we are all scarred in some way.

I’ve been thinking lately about a book I read many years ago by Joan Chittister called, Scarred by Struggle, Transformed by Hope: the Nine Gifts of Suffering. It’s not a book that everyone will like because she walks through this dark place of suffering with a keen eye to how our pain can also become a place of transformation and hope. Frankly, I think most of us would gladly give up the process of transformation in order to avoid the pain and suffering. But life is not like that. Suffering happens. Chittister says suffering usually comes when we least expect it and startles us out of a place of comfort and security. An illness, a death, a job loss, a car accident, some tragedy befalls us in such a way that we know that life will never be the same again.

Our Gospel reading this morning describes a woman with a spirit that has crippled her. She spent eighteen years in a place of deep pain, so much pain that she is literally bent over. Somehow she has found her way to Jesus and seeing her Jesus heals her. But that’s not the end of the story. Because .Jesus has healed this woman on the Sabbath and that upsets some people. Not because he healed but because he healed on the Sabbath. Jesus and these people each hold a different view of what should be done on the Sabbath. A different view of what can and cannot be done.

Likewise when it comes to our perceptions of who is able-bodied and who is disabled, of what can and what cannot be done, and what attributes constitute health and wellbeing we are confronted with different understandings. I recently spent some time with a woman who is blind. And I admit I was somewhat startled when this person said that being blind was her “most precious gift.”

Suddenly I realized that a person that I would call disabled because she or he is blind or sits in a wheel chair might be just as inclined to call me disabled because I don’t see or move the way they do.
If what my friend says is true, that being blind is her most precious gift, and if what Jane Lang says is true, that we must learn to live life as it is and not as we would wish, then what I call blind is really just another way of seeing the world. Being hunched over is just another way of living in and moving in the world. Seeing as I do and moving as I do is just another way of being in the world.

The woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years was bent over. We might think that her vision was limited, looking as she must have at the ground, at feet and knees and hemlines of clothing. But her vision led her to Jesus and he healed her of that spirit, and for that she gave thanks and praise to God.

Not long ago I had a conversation with another friend of mine, one who is suffering from a deep loss, which has changed her life forever. Though her pain is still deep and the loss still profound she feels something stirring inside, something else is coming to life, in addition to pain and suffering. She said something like, “God has a hold on me and won’t let go.” I get that, I’ve my own share of burdens and suffering. I think God has a hold on me too. I’m willing to bet God has hold on you as well. In the words we hear from Hebrews, “we will not be shaken;” because no matter what happens God has a hold on us.

So, on the one hand we live in bondage from the limitations of our perceptions. Those perceptions may be the result of some kind of pain or suffering. They may be how we think someone else ought to feel, given what we think is their life circumstance. On the other hand we live in the grip of a God who won’t let go of us. One limits our view of God’s love, healing, and grace, and the other opens us up to experience God’s love, healing, and grace in ever deepening ways. One is a human construct and one is a construct of God.

How we see and know God in our lives and in the lives of others is always limited by our own perception and vision and movement. But regardless of these limitations each of us is held in the grip of God. A grip that leads us to the feet of Jesus, where it becomes a grip of love that heals from the inside out and sets us free. From this grip, that which we think will limit us or others becomes our most precious gift, because its God who holds us, God who won’t let go, and even in that grip, God who sets us free.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Proper 15C

A reflection on the readings for Proper 15C by The Rev. Margaret Rose

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God. Hebrews 12:1-2

All around me people are dying. Some tragically, like the 30 year old daughter of a colleague who took her own life or the healthy six year old who had a brain aneurysm. Some after long lives and short illnesses, like 104 year old Lottie, or the mothers of two other colleagues who died in their 90’s or Deputy to General Convention Charles Crump. And then last week were Ted Stevens and Dan Rostenkowski whose deaths played no personal role but whose passing mark the end of some political era.

There are those who are on their way—like my friend Emmett, who is now in advanced stages of cancer. He is a priest in New London and godfather to my daughter.

Mourning these losses brings to mind so many I have known and loved and offers the opportunity not only to reflect on what is really important in life, but also on the knowledge that death is where we will all find ourselves at the last day.

Awareness of these deaths returns me to that childhood and never answered question: So what happens when we die? Not physically of course but spiritually. None of us really knows for sure though some may claim so.

Most of us have our understanding of afterlife from some place deep in our childhoods---even if our highly educated selves have taught us something different. In times of grief and stress we often go back to that place if it was good or avoid and deny it at all costs if it was bad.

For my part, I grew up in the Episcopal Church, my North Carolina mother having come from a long line of Episcopalians. My father, however, had been a life long Baptist, and joined the Episcopal Church because my maternal grandmother would not allow what she at the time called “intermarriage”! On the side of the family, my paternal grandmother who lived next door, though disappointed at my father’s “conversion”, held to the hope that he might one day return. She kept close watch on us four children fervently hoping that she could bring some good and strict moral influences into our lives. (She would sit at our kitchen table and say, “Thought I would come over and see what the plutocrats were doing today,” thus clearly indicating that there was some debauchery going on in our household.) But I am ever grateful to her for those strict influences and for her theology regarding issues such as salvation and the afterlife.

There was no doubt in her mind, for example, that there was an after life. How you lived your life here on earth determined the benefits received either in heaven or, as she would say, “in that other place”. My mother, just as staunch on the Episcopal side of things was also clear about the after life, but without the heaven and hell theology. Being good now was an end in itself for her and we all knew it. For my mother, those who had gone before were now the saints and angels in heaven. Their power in heaven while not determinative of our future was nevertheless all seeing. The angels could see all that occurred with those of us on earth. They could be useful as comforters or sometimes guilt producing companions in daily life.

This theology served me well, not just in the daily life of my childhood years, but most particularly after the sudden death of my father when I was fifteen. After the grief and pain that accompanies the loss of a parent, this knowledge of the afterlife was both a comfort and a regular thorn in my adolescent side---or might I say hormones. There was no doubt in my mind that far more than in life, in death my father was aware of my every move. I pretty much give him the credit for keeping me on the straight and narrow at least until I was 21. (My father seemed to be sitting in the middle seat of the car whenever I went on a date!)

Later on, of course as I studied theology and scripture, I began to see this presence of my father in a different light. Less big brother (or in this case big daddy) is watching you , and more a sense of continued guardianship, the guiding presence of one who had once been responsible for my very existence continuing that care in a more spiritual way. With the passing of years and the passing away of too many of those I have known and loved, including my mother and 2 siblings, I have often thought of these well beloved friends and relatives as “my dead people” helping me through one difficult time or another or simply being present in the midst of the endurance that is required of daily life.

The memory of the lives they lived was a witness to their own courage. Their watching over was a witness to my own life. Perhaps this sounds more like an All Saints sermon than one for the middle of August. But this is in large part exactly what the writer to the Hebrews implies in the text for today. “Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witness, let us lay aside every weight and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus…” My father, mother, sister, brother, well beloved friends are as the epistle writer says, my cloud of witnesses, those who add to community and family God’s own self—surrounding me and us on every side in the sometimes perilous journey of life and faith.

This isn’t of course just Grandma Theology. It is Biblical. Throughout the Epistle to the Hebrews, the faithful are reminded that witnesses have been there in the hard times of God’s people. Remember the days of slavery; remember the days in the wilderness, the wars, the famines. And then remember Moses and Aaron and Miriam, Abram and Sarah and Hagar, remember Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob, Leah, Rachel. These leaders who endured are still present, as witnesses of faith in the hearts and minds of the people. These are the great cloud of witnesses even now encouraging us, God’s people, not to give up hope, in spite of Afghanistan or murder in Manchester.

I am reminded again and again as we pray the Eucharist—we remember the Saints and angels even as we ask God’s continued presence in our lives asking that we come to God’s table not for solace only but for strength and renewal.

And it isn’t just those Old Testament witnesses I mentioned earlier or the ones we know in our own lives, but a host who have been proclaimed and remembered by the church and elsewhere... The newest edition of what used to be called Lesser Feasts and Fasts, now Holy Women; Holy Men offers us stories of discipleship and witness to faith of a host of women and men. The new ones are from every age, biblical, like Lydia, Dorcas and Phoebe, or the 18th Century Molly Brant, a witness among the Mohawks, poet Christina Rosetti (1894) or more contemporary witnesses like Frances Perkins and Anna Julia Cooper who died in the 1960’s.

The Hebrews writer is letting us know that we do not go at discipleship alone. We are a community of biblical memory who even as we move out into new directions we stand on a foundation which promises to hold us up and a cloud of witnesses who surround us on every side.

Who are your witnesses? Aside from the ones we all have. But who are the ones in your own life in your own story. Call on them. Allow them to speak in these times. Allow their lives of courage or the choices they made to teach you, to claim you to offer you strength and joy for this day and in the days to come.

Maybe Charles Wesley says it best:
Let Saints on earth in concert sing with those whose work is done;
For all the servants of our King (remember it is 18th century) in
Heaven and earth are one. AMEN