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"If you are a dreamer, come in. If you are a dreamer, a wisher, a liar, a Hope-er, a Pray-er, a Magic Bean buyer; if you're a pretender, come sit by my fire. For we have some flax-golden tales to spin. Come in! Come in!" -- Shel Silverstein

Sunday, March 29, 2020

Magic and Miracles

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Magic and Miracles
Lent V - Lazarus Sunday - March 28, 2020
Morning Prayer on Facebook Live

“Unbind him and let him go.” (John 11:1-45)

When our kids were little, they heard the story of Lazarus in church and were absolutely enthralled by it. I'm not sure why, but I think, to a child's mind, it was closer to hearing about a Zombie in church than they imagined possible. 

I remember one occasion, the fifth Sunday in Lent, when the kids came home from church and, after lunch, re-enacted the story in our living room.

They slightly adapted their ‘sofa fort’ for the performance. Now, if you don’t know what a ‘sofa fort’ is, you might want to learn. It’s a great place to sit while you shut out the rest of the world and, perhaps, read a book or listen to music, or take a nap.

One way is to take all the pillows off the couch – back and bottom – to form a structure. Or, you can take two chairs from the kitchen and put them on either end of the sofa. Then throw a large, preferably king sized sheet or blanket over the sofa and chairs and, voila! You have a sofa fort.

In our kid’s version, one of them was chosen by short straw lottery to be Lazarus and got all bound up with another sheet and had to lie in the sofa fort.  As I remember it, there was a scene where Jesus came in and the ones who played Mary and Martha were quite adept at wailing loudly.

At the appointed time, Jesus stood in front of the sofa fort . . . I mean tomb. . . and yelled, very loudly, “Abracadabra!” 

I winced and considered whispering the appropriate words but, before I could muster the courage, two of the kids whooshed off the blanket with great dramatic flare and panache and helped the little pint-sized Lazarus stand upright and emerge from the . . . er, um . . . tomb.

And then Jesus yelled, “Man, do you stink! Take that stinkin’ sheet off him!” And, they did and then everyone yelled, “Hooray!” and “Welcome back!” and they applauded and then took great deep bows.

I did try to tell them that what Jesus actually said was, “Lazarus, come out!” and not “Abracadabra!” and, “Unbind him and let him go!” and not “Take that stinkin’ sheet off him,” but they weren’t buying it. They insisted that what we heard in the gospel lessons was the ‘cleaned up’ adult version and what they were saying was closer to the truth.

I let it go, figuring that, when they got older, we’d have a conversation about antiquity and modernity and the difference between magic and miracles.

These days, these past three weeks, have sometimes seemed like a scene out of antiquity, hasn’t it? So many things we’ve taken for granted have been taken from us. Simple things, like: 

Having coffee with a friend at a café, Meeting someone at the diner for lunch. Going to the movies. Heck, going to work! Shopping for a special something for Easter Day. Easter Day. Actually, the whole of Holy Week and Easter Day.

We’d love nothing more than for someone to wave their arms around and say, ‘Abracadabra!’ and roll the heavy stone of this COVID-19 virus and quarantine and – just like that – make this whole pandemic go away.

That’s the difference between magic and miracles. As we grow older and mature, we come to know that there really isn’t much magic to magic. It’s a matter of convincing the observer or participant that the person – known as the magician – has harnessed supernatural forces to make impossible things happen. 

Sometimes, good things. Sometimes, not so good things.

A miracle, on the other hand, is defined as “a surprising and welcome event that is not explicable by natural or scientific laws and is therefore considered to be the work of a divine agency.”

Here’s a very shorthand difference: Magic points to YOU. Miracles point to GOD.

There’s a great deal of magical thinking in these days of the pandemic. I don’t know about you but my email and Facebook messenger and other Social Media feeds are filled with easy answers to get rid of the complicated and confounding new virus. The effects of COVID-19 is much like one of the plagues we read about in scripture and history.

The logic of modern magical thinking goes something like this: COVID-19 came about in the midst of the cold of winter, therefore, COVID-19 must hate heat. So, the best way to not get COVID-19 is to stay out in the sun or move to a sunny, hot climate. One of my friends says he’s gotten invitations from his friends in Africa to come and stay with them. Or, if you can’t travel, one should just sip hot liquids every 15 minutes.

Except, of course, people in Florida and Louisiana have very high rates of COVID-19 infection and the infection and death rates in Africa are, unfortunately, exploding.

Magic points to YOU. Miracles point to GOD.

There are three things about this story of Lazarus that always strike me. The first is that Jesus asked the people to roll away the stone that was covering the tomb. Now, had he wanted, Jesus could have moved that stone all by himself. And, that would have been impressive. Magical, in fact.

He could have just waved his arms and shouted “Abracadabra!” Instead, Jesus asks for the stone to be rolled away. It takes several very strong people to do that.

Secondly, Jesus calls to Lazarus to come out. Ever wonder why Lazarus didn’t just hear the stone rolling away (I would have made lots of noise), and see daylight come into the tomb and get up and start walking out on his own? No, actually, Jesus calls him out.

Finally, once Lazarus is out of the tomb, Jesus calls to the people, “Unbind him and let him go.” Now, a good magician would have already had two scantily clad women come out from behind the tomb, each taking part of the stinky rags that bound him, and, with great dramatic flare and no small amount of panache, whirled him out of his burial cloth. Ta da! Instead, Jesus again asked the people for their help, their participation in the miracle.

I think there are three very important lessons we can learn from this ancient miracle story that we can apply in this time of pandemic.

First, we are all going to have to do some heavy lifting. Each and every one of us is a participant in the story that will be told about this pandemic. We're all going to have to roll the stones away that keep us bound in anxiety and fear.

Governor Cuomo of New York has said that each one of us is a first responder. By that, he means that each one of us can help “flatten the curve” of the incidences of infection and disease by staying home, practicing “social distancing,” washing our hands – and, well, you know the rest of the drill.  Be a first-responder in this pandemic. It's not easy, but #Stayhome.

Second, there is a spiritual vocational aspect of these days of pandemic. I believe we are being called by Jesus, out of the tombs of the parts of our faith which have died and into the Light of the Gospel.

Our vocation is to call on our families, friends and neighbors to see how they are doing, if they need anything; to check in on the kids and make sure they are being fed; to stretch ourselves and learn new ways to stay in touch – like this Facebook live way of being in worship together.

This is a call from Jesus to us, “Come out!” of the darkness of our old, ingrained ways of thinking. Come out into the daylight of compassion and care. Come out into the new light of critical thought and use your creativity and imagination to do good, to be kind, to bring justice and peace.

Finally, Jesus is asking us to participate in the miracle of healing. Indeed, I would go so far as to risk blasphemy and say that the miracle is incomplete without the help of the community. Jesus heals, but it is our hands that care for the one who has been healed. The miracle can still be bound in the shroud of death. We are called to unbind the miracle and make it known.

Just as Jesus required the participation of the whole community in the miracle he performed, so, too, are we all required to participate in the healing of the nation, the healing of the world, from the effects of this pandemic.

We all have work to do. It’s not magic. But, it is a miracle. That’s because, ultimately, this does not point to YOU or ME or US. The healing of this pandemic points to God.

So, here’s my thought for whatever time that lies in front of us until this ends. Build a sofa fort

Just a little bit of whimsy in the middle of your home where you can go alone or with your partner or spouse or the kids. 

Turn the TV off and take turns in it, or pile the whole family in, just for a session of tickles and giggles.

Make it a ‘safe place’ where you can retreat from time to time. Where you can, as my aunts used to say, “Take a load off.” Take a breath. 

Whether a soft fort or not, create a safe place where you can stimulate your brain cells that have been temporarily suspended by the free-floating anxiety in the air. A place where you can fire your imagination and set loose your creativity and ability to play well with others and do good for others.

Create in your home a place where you can take some time away from the fretting and anxiety and pray and listen to what God might be calling you to do.

For I believe we each have been placed here, unlikely a choice as we are – just as Esther was – for such a time as this. So, listen to Jesus. Unbind yourself and let yourself go deeper into the miracles that await us. 

For I believe that we will emerge from the tomb of this pandemic changed and transformed and will never again be the same, with new life and a new vision for a new world.


Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Anglican Prayer Beads in A Time of Pandemic

There's no doubt about it: Everywhere you turn, there is free-floating anxiety.

I don't know about you, but I am especially challenged during my "normal" times of meditation and prayer. My "monkey brain" seems to shift into overdrive and I simply can't concentrate enough to have a meaningful time of meditation and prayer.

I know God understands. I know I don't have to have beautiful, poetic prayers with perfectly perfect words. God hears the deepest cries of the heart even before they form themselves into words.

It's my body, my soul and my mind that need a little more help to repel the anxiety that is swirling around in the cultural ether in these days of "sheltering in place".

This is when I find the Anglican Prayer Beads - aka Anglican Rosary - most helpful.

I'm going to start a Facebook Live session tonight at 10 PM - just a little something to help us all get into a better space for a more restful sleep and, in the words of Compline, "a peaceful night and a perfect end".

So, for those of you who don't know about the Anglican Prayer Beads, I'll skip over all the history and such and simply reassure you that praying with prayer beads is not just for Roman Catholics.

Prayer beads have been used for centuries by Orthodox Christians as well as those who practice  Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Sikhism, and Ba'hai.

Anglican Prayer Beads are used and have been adapted by Methodists, who call them Protestant Prayer Beads and Lutherans, who call them "The Wreath of Christ."

What I love most about Anglican Prayer Beads, besides their effectiveness in helping to calm and still the soul in distress, and focus and ease a troubled mind, is that it can be adapted to various situations.

One can change the prayers using the liturgical cycle, the Serenity Prayer, prayers for healing, and/or prayers for a specific person or situation.  One can also use them and sing your prayers.

See? Thoroughly Anglican. Not either/or but both/and.

It's a way to slow down what we are thinking or feeling or doing by helping us to pay attention, feeling our way, bead by bead, and drawing us closer to a sense of God's presence.

Let me take you through the 'architecture', as it were, of the Anglican Prayer Beads. Everything is rich with symbolism and meaning.

It begins and ends with the Cross, of course, which we hold in one hand and welcome God's presence.

With the other hand, we hold the first large bead, the Invitation, which calls us to worship God and invites us into the circle of prayer.

We continue to enter more deeply into prayer, touching or holding the first of four Cruciform beads, so-called because they form an "invisible cross" inside the circle of prayer.

The smaller beads in groups of seven, in between the Cruciform beads, are known as The Seven Day Beads. We pray and praise God in Christ for "sev'n whole days not one in sev'n" (thank you, George Herbert).

And, of course, the number 7 symbolizes the number of days in creation, including the day of rest. It symbolizes spiritual perfection and completion.

We make our way 'round the four sets of the week and return to the Invitation Bead and then back out to bring the Cross into the world.

So, if you've been paying attention, that means that Anglican Prayer Beads are comprised of a cross and 33 beads, 5 large and 28 small.  The thirty-three beads are supposed to remind us of the number of years Christ spent in his earthly life before he ascended into heaven.

You can find lots of information about the great variety of prayers to use when praying with Anglican Prayer Beads.

You can use The Jesus Prayer: "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner."

Here's one with the Lord's Prayer as the prayer for the Cruciform Bead and the Jesus Prayer for the Seven Day Beads

Here's another one that uses The Lord's Prayer for the Cruciform Beads and the Serenity Prayer for the Seven Day Beads.

Here is a form for the Trisagion and Lord's Prayer and one using the Agnus Dei 

You can also use one for healing and, for the Seven Day Beads, just say the name of the person you are praying for.

And, if you are the musical type and pray better while you sing, here's a fabulous "Introduction to Praying with Anglican Prayer Beads and Song," by Rev Sylvia Miller-Mutia.

One last thing: If you don't have Anglican Prayer Beads, not to worry. You can make them out of yarn or string by tying knots in the appropriate places. Here are some directions. 

Or, you can make them with beads. Here are some really simple instructions. 

Of course, you can always buy them online.  I mean, even Amazon carries them, some, under $10

Here's the one I've been using during this time of COVID-19 Pandemic. It incorporates one of the phrases of the Supplication (BCP p 154 which is to be used "especially in times of war, or of national anxiety, or of disaster), as well as the prayers of Julian of Norwich. 

The tension between the words of the Supplication and the mystery inherent in the response of Julian's vision always bring me a sense of peace. I also like that we enter with a sense of the mystery of God and God's love and we leave with that same sense of mystery. 
At the Cross: 

A little thing God showed to Julian, the size of a hazelnut;
it lay like a ball on the palm of her hand.
"What is it," she asked, "this little fragile thing?"
"It is all that is made," God said,
"and exists now and forever for I love it."

The Invitation

O Lord, arise, help us.
And deliver us for thy name's sake.

At the Cruciform

In you, Father almighty, we have our preservation and our bliss.
In you, Christ, we have our restoring and our saving.
You are our mother, brother, and Savior,
In you, our Lord, the Holy Spirit is marvelous and plenteous grace.

At the Seven Days

All shall be well, and all shall be well,
and all manner of things shall be well. 
Please join me every Wednesday night at 10 PM for a Facebook Live session on the Facebook Page: "Sirach 26:10 The Headstrong Daughter".

We'll be praying this prayer together but you may certainly use other prayers during the rest of the week.

(Note: Sirach 26:10: "Keep strict watch over a headstrong daughter, for when she finds her liberty, she will use it.")

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Shame and Blame

A Sermon for Lent IV Year A - Laetare Sunday
March 22, 2020 
Preached via Facebook Live 

Well, I don’t know about where you live, but these sure are crazy days, here at Llangollen, our wee cottage on the sparkling marshes of the beautiful Bay of Rehoboth on the Big Waters of The Atlantic.

I don’t know about you, but it seems to me as though these past few weeks – in some cases, days! – someone has taken a chisel to whatever it was that gave shape to “normal life” and carved out something that looks nothing like its former self.  

A skeleton. A shadow. Unrecognizable in some places. Hauntingly empty in others.

I’ll have this thought and then, by the time it passes from my brain to my mouth, I’ve already realized that it is no longer possible.

I think, “Oh, where will we go for lunch after chur . . . . “ and even before I’ve finished the sentence, I realize that there are no restaurants open for dining. 

And, I’m sure as heck not going to get my poached eggs on toast with a side of turkey bacon and a a container of fruit in a Styrofoam container to eat in my car.

I think, “I wonder what movie is playing at the Midway . . .” and then I realize that’s no longer an option. Neither is taking a walk on the boardwalk and listening to the ocean.

And, just like that, “normal daily life” has changed, much of it replaced by a sense of confusion and free-floating anxiety.  

Life as we used to know it has changed and, it seems, people with it. Or, at least, what we thought to be true about our fellow human beings.

The shelves at my local grocery store look like, as one of my neighbors said, "Dresden after the war". Row after row of what used to hold necessary luxuries like toilet paper and paper towels, bread and rolls, peanut butter and jelly, and mayonnaise – MAYONNAISE!!?? Yes, mayonnaise -  stand as witnesses to what sociologists call “panic buying”.

Even the meat and fish section is running on almost empty. When I went to purchase some fish for dinner, I watched the clerk wash his hands between each customer. When it was my turn, I jokingly said, “I see they’ve taught you all about washing your hands.”

“Yes,” he said, “and next week we’re going to learn our colors and then they’re going to teach us shapes.”

Thank God some of us have not lost our sense of humor.

Experts say that this “panic buying” makes us feel more powerful. It is said that we may not have control over our lives, but we take a measure of comfort in that at least we have our ‘stuff’.

We’re also seeing a lot of “shame and blame”. It often happens when anxiety is high and times are uncertain.  It can happen in the best of families. 

Indeed, it happened in the first family. Remember? No, not the one in the White House. The one in the Bible.

Adam and Eve in the Garden? Remember when they tried to blame each other when God discovered that they had done exactly what God asked them not to do? They were afraid of what was to come.

And so, Adam blamed Eve. And then, Eve blamed the snake. It’s so thoroughly human, if it weren’t tragic it would be hilarious.

The story of the healing of the man born blind is a classic example of shame and blame. We cannot get our heads wrapped around a tragedy like being born blind so, to the way of some human thinking, there has to be someone at fault.

The disciples want to know, was it the man himself who sinned or was it his parents who sinned that this poor soul was born blind?

Which are ridiculous questions, on the face of it. It assumes a power to completely destroy that which God has made. In so doing, it assumes that the power of human sin is greater than the power of God’s goodness inherent in the order of creation.

Which is why Jesus takes back the power and says, “No, actually, you just aren’t that powerful.”

Actually, Jesus says, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.”

Jesus is not allowing the power of shame and blame to claim the power for the man’s blindness. Rather, Jesus is saying something that was so radically different from what the disciples had been taught was true that it was earth-shaking and earthmoving and one of them said to the other "Write that down. We have to remember that."

Jesus is saying that the power of creation rests in the hands of the one who is the Creator of the universe. And that sometimes, randomly, bad things happen to good people, but that doesn’t mean anyone sinned and this is punishment for sin.

But, it’s true: There are none so blind as those who refuse to see.

So, Jesus does the next best thing. He took two ‘unclean things” – his spit and the dirt of the earth – and put them like a healing salve on the man’s eyes.

Jesus does not need either spit or dirt to restore the man’s sight. But, by using them, he was making a point, I think, about that which God has created which humankind has diminished in value. Jesus uses both spit and dirt as vehicles of miraculous healing.   

In so doing, Jesus illustrates that the power of God to create and restore and heal is greater than any human failure or sin to limit or destroy.

I've been asked by several people if I thought that God sent this pandemic to get our attention, or to punish us for (insert the sin of your choice) or to thwart the current administration.

No. No, actually, I don't God creates bad stuff to send our way to teach us lessons. 

I think God ALLOWS catastrophes and calamities as opportunities for us to discover more deeply the commandment of Jesus to "love one another as I have loved you."

The words of author Brené Brown strike a deep cord with me. She wrote:

This pandemic experience is a massive experiment in collective vulnerability. We can be our worst selves when we’re afraid, or our very best, bravest selves. In the context of fear and vulnerability, there is often very little in between because when we are uncertain and afraid our default is self-protection. We don’t have to be scary when we’re scared. Let’s choose awkward, brave and kind. And let’s choose each other.

In this time of uncertainty, let us be certain of God’s love for us and God’s presence with us. In this time of fear and anxiety and the impulse to shame and blame, let us choose to love across physical boundaries and borders, just as God loves us. 


Sunday, March 15, 2020

Three Women and a Virus

Three Holy Women - J. Bellange
A Sermon preached for Morning Prayer on FaceBook Live.
The Cha-Cha d'Amore Room at Llangollen, DE

This is a sermon about the hiddenness of God. 

On this third Sunday in Lent, and, because it’s Women’s History Month, I want to talk about how God is often hidden in plain view. I want to do that by talking about three strong, intelligent, feisty, brave women and how they help us discern where God may be in the midst of this coronavirus – COVID-19 – pandemic.

I’ll start with Queen Esther because our Jewish friends just celebrated the festival known as Purim this past Monday and Tuesday. Ester had many of the qualities of a princess in a fairy tale: she was an orphan, she was beautiful, she was loved by everyone who met her, and she won the King’s favor. 

Scripture doesn’t say she has bluebirds flying about, chirping while she sings, like Cinderella, but you could almost write them in.

Ester - artistic rendering (Imtiaz Ali)
Esther won her position as queen at the expense of another woman. In this case, it was Queen Vashti, who lost her crown because her drunken husband, the King, demanded that she parade naked in front of him and his inebriated friends, wearing only her crown. Vashti refused, preserving her honor and decency but losing her status and position.

However, in doing so, she set the stage for Esther to become Queen. As such, Ester used her beauty and privilege as vehicles of the salvation of the Jewish people in the ancient Persian Empire from Haman’s plot “to destroy, kill and annihilate all the Jews, young and old, infants and women, in a single day.”

The big question in the Bookof Esther is “Where is God?” However, God is not mentioned even once throughout the entire book but it is not hard to infer that God is there, hiding in ever turn of events, every unfolding of coincidence, every complicated character. Indeed, Ester’s cousin Mordecai convinces her to approach the King to save her people by saying that she may have been chosen queen, “for such a time as this”. 

Esther bravely approaches the king, even though to do so defies the King’s command that anyone who does so will suffer death by execution. She tells him of her heritage and of Haman’s plot to kill all the Jews. In so doing, she saves them all. The hiddenness of God appears in her cleverness in arranging an opportunity to approach the king as well as in her self-sacrificial bravery to take a stand against injustice.

Queen Vashti - artistic rendering
Oh, to be sure, her story is a complex and complicated one. Haman, the villain in the story, begs Esther for forgiveness, but she does not protest his death sentence. By the end of the book, not only Haman and his sons but 75,000 people have died. It might be asked, where was God for them?

The story of Esther illustrates that while God is hidden in the complicated events and characters of our lives, they do not come with labels telling us what God is up to. It is for us to discern if God has placed certain people and/or events in our lives “for such a time as this”.

The second woman feisty woman who has lessons to teach us about the hiddenness of God is the Samaritan Womanin today’s Gospel lesson.  

Like many women in scripture, she doesn’t have a name. Well, for goodness sake, even the virus has a name, so I’ve decided to give her a “working” name (Note: which is different than the name the Church Fathers have given her: St. Photini).

I’m going to call her Shamash. It means “attendant” in Hebrew. Shamash is the 9th candle on the Menorah, and it is used to light the other candles. As the first woman evangelist, I thought that a good name for her. Whatever her real earthly name was, I hope she approves of at least my intention.

I think this story of Shamash, the Samaritan Woman at Jacob’s well, is probably one of my favorites. I absolutely love her sass and attitude. We get a hint of her social status in the community because we are told that it is noon when she comes to the well to fetch some water. Why does she come out in the heat of the day when I’m sure the rest of the women in the village come out in the early morning hours, when it is cool?

I’m guessing she comes out at noon precisely because she knows the other women will not be there. Instead, she runs into Jesus, who is waiting at the well for his disciples to return with some food.

Jesus asks her for water. Shamash is astonished because Jews didn’t talk with Samaritans who were considered lesser creatures of the Jewish nation. Among other offenses, they practiced interracial marriage and so were considered “impure”. Even so, Jesus engages her saying, if you knew to whom you were speaking, I wouldn’t just give you water, I’d give you living water.

Ha! You can almost hear her laugh right in his face. Ha! You can almost hear her saying, “What are you talking about, man? You ain’t even got a bucket! And, this is a very deep well! Where are you going to get this so-called ‘living water’?” And then, Jesus tells her of the spiritual water he provides which nourishes the thirsty soul. Shamash is so astonished, she is completely taken in.

Shamash becomes the first woman to be an evangelist of the powers of Jesus, but not without first being described as having had five husbands - sort of a "legal prostitute." This is not unlike Mary Magdalene who is frequently described as "a woman of ill repute." Yet, it was this Mary who became the first witness to and evangelist of the Resurrection.

The story of Shamash, the woman at Jacob’s well, is one of many stories where women discover the hiddenness of God deep in the stories of their own lives. God is hidden behind social stereotypes and societal judgments. God is hidden behind racial prejudice and religious intolerance. God is waiting there, not only to give living water to those who have long suffered exclusion and isolation and oppression but to change hearts and minds and lives.

The third woman I want to lift up is Bishop Barbara Harris who was the first woman and the first African American woman to be elected bishop in the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion. You may have heard that Bishop Harris died a few days ago. She was 89 years old.  

If you hadn’t heard about her death, I’m so very sorry to be the bearer of such sad news. 

She was a tiny woman in stature but she was a Giant of Justice. If you’ve ever heard Bishop Barbara preach or speak, you’ll not be at all surprised when I quote some of the things she’s said or written. Let’s just say that I don’t have either the confidence or the courage to speak like that from the pulpit. But, since I’m not at a pulpit this morning, I’m going to quote her without shame or guilt or guile.  

Barbara Clementine Harris, Bishop Suffragan, DioMA
Some of you may not know that Integrity is an organization of LGBTQ+ people and their families and friends who are Episcopalian. The Triennial Integrity Eucharist at General Convention has become so popular that it attracts thousands of people. Bishop Barbara was a popular preacher.

The first time I heard her preach, she told LGBTQ+ people, in that notoriously unrepentant smoker’s gravely voice, with hints of stern older sister and notes of Black Girl Magic, that we were baptized, tithing members of the church, saying, 

The Church is willing to use your time, talent and tithe, but not your humanity... They don't want you to leave, or they'll have no one else to beat up on... We must choose our battleground, and it isn't in a confused church."

At the last Integrity Eucharist, she asked the thousands of people who had gathered this about their baptism, “How can you initiate someone and then treat them like they’re half-assed baptized?”

Bishop Barbara spoke truth to power and it changed lives. And that, in turn, changed the church. God was hidden in her brashness and take-no-prisoners rhetoric. The largeness of God was hidden in her tiny frame. God was hidden in her otherness – a woman and a person of color in a very male and very white church. God was there. Inspiring her. Waiting to be found by others.

Barbara Clementine Harris, Bishop Suffragan, DioMA
In these days of a national emergency, it’s hard to see God. Indeed, I’ve heard some cry out like the Israelites at Massah and Meribah in this morning’s reading from Exodus, who said, “Is the Lord among us or not?” 

I’ve heard others talk about the empty shelves at the grocery store, but it wasn’t until I saw them in my own neighborhood store that I realized just how terrified people are. 

Panic-buying, it’s called. The psychologists tell us that hoarding food and paper products gives us a sense of power over things we can’t control. And, if God has, in fact, abandoned us, well, at least we’ll have food and drink. 

And, apparently, paper products.

What if God is hidden in this national emergency? What if God is hidden right in the midst of this worldwide pandemic? Because, you know, I believe God is. In the same way God was hidden in the midst of the story of Esther, even though God’s name was never spoken.

I believe God is hidden now in the same way God was hidden right in the plain sight of Shamash, the Samaritan Woman who met Jesus at Jacob’s well in the heat of the noon of the day and told her he had living water for her, even though he didn’t even have a proper bucket.

I believe God is hidden now in our need to scapegoat and blame others in the same way God was in what some others perceived as the human otherness of gender and color in Barbara Clementine Harris.

I believe that God is calling us into the midst of this epidemic to seek and serve all the various ways God is hidden among us, calling out to us to be the vehicles of justice, to be bearers of truth, and disturbers of the peace of the world so that we might know the peace of God.

The hiddenness of God can be seen with the eyes of those who seek God in places and in people and in situations we least expect to find God.

I believe we are all called, like Esther, “for such a time as this,” and like Shamash, to tell others about Living Water, and like Barbara, to speak truth to power.

During this time of Lent, may we seek God in the hidden places of our own souls and stories, that we may more clearly see God hidden in the souls and stories of others.



·       Call and check-in with each other, especially if someone is unwell.

·       Be mindful of those of us on fixed incomes or an hourly wage who may experience a disruption in income if they become ill.

·       Begin to consider creative alternatives should gathering for worship become impossible for a time or to enable at-risk parishioners to join for worship together from home. Examples include Facebook LIVE, Zoom and Google Hangouts.

·       For at-risk parishioners who are not able to join us, gather links to the webpages of congregations in our diocese and beyond that already live-stream worship services.

·       Offer a BCP to those who are homebound who may not be able to join us.

·       Remember that the most common phrase in both Hebrew and Christian Scripture is “Be not afraid.” Fear is a very human response in challenging times but fear never improved or cured any illness or stopped an epidemic. The old saying seems trite but it was nevermore true: When your knees are knocking, kneel on them.

Adapted from A New Zealand Prayer Book

God of the present moment,
God who in Jesus stills the storm
and soothes the frantic heart;
bring hope and courage to us
as we wait in uncertainty.
Bring hope that you will make us the equal
of whatever lies ahead.
Bring us courage to endure what cannot be avoided,
for your will is health and wholeness;
you are God, and we need you.

Sunday, March 08, 2020

Who's Afraid of the Dark?

Lent II  -  March 8, 2020 
Christ Episcopal Church, Milford, DE

Who’s afraid of the dark? (Raise your hands.)

Okay, when you were children, how many of you were afraid of the dark? How many slept with a night-light? (Raise your hands)

How many of you sleep with a night light but tell yourself it’s so you can find your way to the bathroom? (I won’t raise my hand if you don’t.)

This is a sermon about being afraid of the dark. It’s a sermon about how to begin to search the interior darkness of the soul – or, at least, inspire you to take that journey.

This is a sermon about the work of Lent. 

Each time I read this story of the encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus, I am struck by how much my understanding of Nicodemus has changed and evolved over the years.

When I was a child in Sunday School and Sister read us this story, I remember we would boo, right on cue, after the very first sentence, There was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews.”

Boo! Hiss! It might as well have been the cartoon character, Snidely Whiplash from the Rocky and Bullwinkle Show. Wait! Am I showing my age? Okay, how about Lex Luthor or The Joker from the Superman comics? Oops, I mean movie! (Do people even read comic books anymore?)

As children, we knew Nicodemus was a Very Bad Man because he was a Pharisee. He was also a Jew. And, we were oh, so very carefully taught that it was Rome who killed Jesus but the Pharisees arranged it and “the Jews” who called for it.

It’s true. You have to be carefully taught, and the church, at the time, used scripture to reinforce that prejudice. Unfortunately, some churches still do. And, that has to change.

The very next sentence reinforced all the negative stuff we were being taught about Nicodemus: “He came to Jesus by night.” I can still hear the ‘tone’ in Sister’s voice, which intimated that he was a coward and/or something very sinister was about to happen.

It didn’t take much to convince me that bad things happen when the lights go out. It was a natural-born fact of every childhood that monsters live under the bed or in the closet and they will come out and hurt you as soon as the lights go out.

It did not matter that your parents came into your room after your cried and screamed and tried to reassure you by getting down on their hands and knees and looking under the bed or opening the closet door and proclaiming “See? There’s nothing there.”

Duh! That’s because the light is on now. Monsters only come out at night. Just like the boogeyman my parents also taught us about. That was another racial stereotype we were carefully taught.  Today, we use the more generic “Stranger Danger” – but everyone knows and understands.

But there was a reason my mother always called us to stay on the porch once the streetlights went on at dusk. Apparently, no monster or dangerous stranger of any race would dare to come on my mother’s porch. I mean, if you knew my mother, you wouldn’t.

Besides, there was a light on.

As I grew older, the monsters under my bed stopped bothering me, but the stories I heard in church or read in scripture or the prayers I said and was taught reinforced the negativity about The Dark.

Indeed, even the soaring poetry of the prayers in our beloved BCP seemed to lead the conspiracy:  Deliver us, O Lord, from the powers of darkness. Shine into our hearts the brightness of your Holy Spirit and protect us from all perils and dangers of the night.

Here’s the thing about Nicodemus. In many interpretations, he has been reduced to a foil. He is a contrast with and an enhancement to Jesus’ obvious superiority. He’s a coward and an idiot. He’s a Pharisee who seems to be tangled up in the weeds of the law.

We can’t decide: Is he too smart for his own good? Or is he, in fact, an embarrassment to his brothers whom he seems ready to betray? Is he too dimwitted to understand what Jesus is saying about being born again?

Then again, do we really understand the question Jesus asks Nicodemus: “Howcan anyone be born after having grown old?" Not really, I suppose, which is why it’s so easy to let Nicodemus carry our sense of incompetence for us.

Jesus doesn’t see him that way at all. Jesus receives Nicodemus as a sincere religious seeker and welcomes him and his searching mind. He immediately spots him as a member of the Pharisees – a Judge – and treats him with the respect accorded his position.

Perhaps Jesus, being a Rabbi himself, knows and understands that Nicodemus is here, at night, because the rabbis taught that the Torah was best studied at night, under the glow of the moon and the flicker of the candle, when it was quiet and the distractions of the day had subsided.

Nicodemus is not being a coward and trying to avoid being seen in this illicit liaison. Actually, he is using his study time to expand his search beyond the standard texts. Jesus himself has becomes the book into which Nicodemus delves. He searches every word from the mouth of Jesus for wisdom and understanding.

Nicodemus reminds me of a young student I had when I was a chaplain at University of Lowell. It was Palm Sunday afternoon. It was also the start of Spring Break. I knew there wouldn’t be many kids left on campus, so I had arranged to have a Palm Sunday service in my office.

Sure enough, only one student showed up. Jason was a biology major with aspirations to become a physical therapist. He was able to be at University because of student loans and a part time job and a veteran’s benefit, having done a few tours of duty during the Iran-Iraq War. 

He was interested in physical therapy because, he said, he knew the benefits himself, having been seriously injured (that’s all he would say) during one of the many conflicts and combat he experienced while a soldier in the Persian Gulf.

You may remember that it is on Palm Sunday that we read the Passion of Jesus. You may also remember that there are many parts to that sacred reading. Well, there being just the two of us, Jason and I decided to take the scripture story a paragraph each and read through it together.

We were doing fine together, until we got to the part where Jesus is whipped and scourged. Jason started to slow down. He cleared his throat a couple of times and then his voice began to tremble.

As I was reading my paragraph, I noted that Jason was taking some deep breaths. Before he took his turn to read, I asked him if he wanted to take a breath, at which point, Jason burst into tears, sobbing deeply. 

When he came up for air, he looked at me and said, “I had no idea. I’ve never read this before. I don’t think I’ve ever heard it before. I had no idea of his real suffering.”

I had no intention of saying this to him. I just opened my mouth and the words came out, “Jason,” I heard myself say gently, “why don’t you tell me about your suffering?”

That was all it took. Jason poured out his story, his experience of war, which was horrific – beyond anything I could imagine a body or mind or soul surviving.

At the end of his war story, he took a deep breath and said, “You’re the first person I’ve talked with about the war. My parents don’t know. My girlfriend doesn’t know. I haven’t told any of my buddies or anyone here at the University. Just the docs at the VA Hospital. Oh, and I did tell my physical therapist. He understood because he had been wounded, too.”

And then, he took another deep breath and said, “But, now I know that Jesus knows. He knows my suffering because he went through even worse than I did. I never knew, Chaplain. I swear, I never knew. And, I went to Church. I went to Sunday school. I just never knew.”

After that, Jason came to my office once a week. We studied the Bible together. He called together a few of his friends and they told their friends. 

When I left my chaplain’s position at ULowell, my office had between 25-30 students at weekly Bible study – mostly because Jason invited them. Oh, and we had pizza afterward.

I’ve lost track of Jason over the years. Last I heard, he was a physical therapist with the VA Hospital, helping others to recover from their wounds – seen and unseen – as someone had done for him. 

Oh, and I heard he was co-leading a weekly Bible study with an Army chaplain, helping others to know the story of Jesus so they wouldn’t feel so alone, and would know that Jesus knew their suffering.

Oh, and Nicodemus? After that nightly encounter with Jesus, we don’t ever hear from him again. Except in the last chapter of John’s Gospel. His name appears with Joseph of Arimathea. 

That name may sound familiar to you. It was Joseph who offered his brand new, never-used tomb as a burial place for Jesus. It was Nicodemus who helped Joseph wrap the dead body of Jesus in cloth along with some myrrh and aloes. Doing so meant that both men were ritually unclean and that they would be prohibited from participating in the celebration of the Passover.

And, it was sundown before the Sabbath. The darkness was about to surround them in ways they had never before experienced. They had clearly broken with the rest of the Jewish religious leadership. Surely, their absence from the Passover festivities would be noted and the reason discovered.

Who knew what kind of dangers waited for them?  It was about to get very dark. Very, very dark.

So, what say you?  Are you afraid of the dark? What is keeping you from taking the risk of searching beyond what is safe, what is tried and true? What secrets are you holding there, in the dark corners and crevices of your soul? What truths do you hold in secret darkness that need to be brought to the light?

As a Hospice Chaplain I know that, before people leave this earth, they need to know two things: Love and Forgiveness.

They need to know that they have loved and that they are loved.

They need to know that they have forgiven and that they are forgiven.

Some people don’t know these two things because of the secrets they hold in the dark. And, even though they’ve heard the gospel a hundred times, they don’t know that Jesus knows the suffering that is held in their secrets and their truths hidden deep there, in the dark corners and crevices of their soul.

It’s Lent. It is the Second Sunday in Lent. Are you afraid of the dark?  

Time to turn on the night light of faith and seek Jesus who will greet us as pilgrims and love us and respect our questions.