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Recently, as I thought about the texts for that upcoming Sunday, I realized one of them was Genesis 22. Somehow, in fifteen years of ordained ministry, I had dodged that difficult text in preaching—the gospel was always easier. Besides, how do children hear such a primitive, terrifying text? (Yes, some of them may be happily coloring pictures during the sermon, but parents have told me they hear more than one might think!) But this year, I decided it was time to wrestle with that theological alligator, thanking God that I had saved class notes from Dr. Ellen Davis’ Old Testament class years ago.

When one of the teenagers at St. Philip’s saw the lessons that morning, he said to his mother, “Mother Sheila won’t preach on that passage. She’s going to avoid it.” His mom replied, “Oh, I wouldn’t be so sure about that.” Later, she said she elbowed him when I began preaching. At the end, he said softly, ‘But she still didn’t answer my questions.’ His mom replied, “Of course she didn’t.”

He still has questions? Good. So do I. And I was glad that he does have questions about his Christian faith. Young people (those I know, anyway) don’t just accept blindly whatever a church leader tells them about faith and how they should believe. Instead, they question, push back, engage in deeper conversations about what they believe and why.

I was also pleased to see what happened at Coffee Hour that morning. Someone commented on the sermon and a thoughtful discussion ensued. I was able to share some of this difficult passage’s interpretations and was amazed at the depth of conversation over coffee.

Having been raised by Southern Baptists, I understand the differences between that view of Holy Scripture and that of Anglicans. My love for the Anglican way deepens every time I preach or teach about a difficult text. I appreciate the fact that Dr. Reginald Fuller argued that the Church of England—even at the time of the Reformation—never made the claim for the inerrancy of Scripture. Instead ( he referenced Article VII of the Thirty-Nine Articles in the Prayerbook), we see the Son of God as ‘the Word of the Father,” hence this Word of God is living and personified.[1]

I also appreciate that as long as humankind has had language and the ability to communicate, words have been used as illustrations, symbols, and vessels of great power. Yes, sometimes those vessels and symbols have been used by some humans to divide, to hurt, even to abuse. Yet I cannot imagine that a scripture passage a) means the same thing to a twenty-first century person as it did to a person living in the Bronze Age of history and b) has only one meaning forever. I also do not believe that revelation of God’s Word ended with written texts or a particular time in history—wouldn’t that be limiting the power of God’s Spirit? Yes, we will continue to wrestle with interpretation of scripture—even within my beloved Anglican Church. But I hope, and pray, that in this wrestling, the One who first created us, the One who gave us the living Word, changes us—for the better.

© The Rev. Dr. Sheila N. McJilton

[1] Reginald Fuller, “The Bible as the Word of God” in Sykes, Booty & Knight, The Study of Anglicanism, 87.

Genesis 24:34-38, 42-29, 58-67

Sacrament of Holy Baptism for Matteo Miranda Spado

The circle of life is both interesting and amazing. Sometimes this journey becomes a spiral, going ever deeper, bringing people and events we had not expected. Yet somehow, our great story goes on, from one generation to another. In the past few weeks, we have heard parts of Abraham and Sarah’s story—their circle of life. We have heard stories of unexpected blessing and joy—a child given late in life. We have heard stories of deception, rejection and division with implications for all subsequent generations. And last week, we explored a story of Abraham’s extreme proof of faith. After that terrifying incident on top of Mt. Moriah, Abraham does not go back to Sarah’s tents in Hebron. Instead, he lives apart from her in Beersheba. According to midrashic tradition, Sarah dies of grief over what we know as “the binding of Isaac.” When she dies, Abraham bargains with the local Hebron tribesmen for a cave in which to bury his wife.

In the next chapter of Abraham’s story, Abraham has grown very old. Yet as patriarch of this family, Abraham must do one more thing before he dies. He must find his son Isaac a wife, and he has no desire to find that wife among the pagans with whom he lives.    So he sends his most trusted servant back to the land of Haran, where Abraham and his family had once lived. Abraham knows that in Haran, the servant will find family members. In the ancient tradition, you marry from within your tribe and parents arrange marriages. So Abraham’s most trusted servant sets out on a long, desert journey to find a wife for Isaac. Abraham trusts that God will, once again, provide. His servant trusts that God will provide. And God does. In a delightful story, the servant finds Abraham’s relatives, a beautiful young woman, and in her, a wife for Isaac. It is interesting to note, however, that rather than making the legal arrangements as their custom and culture dictates, Rebekah’s mother Bethuel and her brother Laban ask her “Will you go with this man?” In a gesture that reveals her courage, Rebekah says, “I will.” So Rebekah and all the women who attend her pack, mount camels and follow Abraham’s trusted servant back to Hebron. We get a clear image of Rebekah’s first glimpse of Isaac. She dismounts her camel, asks the servant who that man is who is walking towards them in the field, then covers her face with a veil—not to be uncovered until her wedding night.

Isaac—who has grieved deeply after his mother Sarah died—takes Rebekah to be his wife. In what is perhaps the only passage in the Hebrew scriptures to speak of romantic love, the story says “He took Rebekah, and she became his wife, and he loved her. So Isaac was comforted after his mother’s death.”

Today, we gather as God’s people, many, many generations after Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah. yet we, too, are part of a great family. This weekend, we celebrate our nation’s independence, while we also celebrate the great diversity of these United States of America. People have come to these shores from all languages, tribes and nations. They have arrived in a search for freedom, the opportunity for education the chance to have a higher standard of life. Many of us at St. Philip’s have come from nations wide-flung: Nigeria, Ghana, Liberia. From England, Ireland, Scotland. From Germany, China, Jamaica and Trinidad. From Canada, Guatamala and recently returned Americans from Bogata, Columbia.

Today, we gather to celebrate another circle of life in the great family of God: the baptism of Matteo Miranda Spado. his toddler has come into this family as great blessing. Ana came to this country when she was twelve, speaking almost no English and bringing with her a heritage and language passed on to her from her family. In 2010, she and Matt married in great joy. They experienced deep grief, when they lost their first baby. Yet the circle of life has come around again, spiraled deeper, and with it, the gift of this beautiful child. Matteo has already experienced love, illness, challenges and happiness as he explores his rapidly expanding world. Ana and Matt and their family and friends come today to present this child for the sacrament of Holy Baptism. The words of baptism are not some magical formula recited over him. Instead, with powerful, sacramental words, his parents, godparents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and others make vows on Matteo’s behalf. You, his family, will vow before God and a community of faith that you will raise him in the Christian faith. This means that you read and tell him Bible stories. You say bedtime prayers and prayers before meals. You teach him the “Padre Nuestro”—the Lord’s Prayer—and the 23rd Psalm, so that they become as much a part of him as his breath. If you teach him these things, he will become two things in his life: A Keeper and a Seeker.

For some of you, the greatest game in the world is currently being played in Brazil: football, otherwise known as soccer. In the game of soccer, there is a keeper—a goal keeper. The keeper is “the only member of a team who is allowed to touch the ball with the hands. Positioned directly in front of goal, it is the keeper’s job to prevent the opposition scoring. The keeper is only allowed to use his hands in the penalty area, and will be penalized if he uses them outside of it.”[1]   The keeper is the last line of defense. He or she must be brave and agile and able to counter all threats. This past week, despite the United States’ loss, Keeper Tim Howard was lauded with great respect when he “pulled off 16 saves—a tally unmatched since such World Cup records began—to often single-handedly keep USA in contention.”[2] It is the job of a keeper to keep away what should be away, so that what needs to happen, happens.

In that sense, I pray that Matteo will be a Keeper. He must keep the Christian faith deep in his heart. He must keep away from him the people and situations that would destroy or compromise his faith. He will only know how to do that if you—his parents, grandparents, godparents and others—teach him in clear, specific practices of the faith.

Father Abraham, his son Isaac and later, his grandson Jacob, also kept the faith. They held it close in their hearts; they taught it to their children; they knew that no matter what depths or heights life held or what unexpected challenges, God loved them. There were Keepers of God. They were also Seekers.

In her mythic Harry Potter novels, J.K. Rowling gives us Quidditch, a game that is a little like basketball and a little like soccer—played as young people soar in the air on brooms. Like the one in real-life soccer, the Quidditch Keeper must prevent the other team from scoring—except in Harry Potter’s world,    he flies around three goal posts in order to do this. The seventh player on the team is the Seeker. “This is a smaller, lighter player who buzzes about, often high above or around the periphery of the other action, looking for the Golden Snitch, the small fourth ball, which has wings and darts about so quickly that it is difficult to see.”[3] One author has noted that “the Golden Snitch is an important symbol, for securing it is the highest objective of the game of Quidditch. It is like the essence of life itself, which many people seek only to learn that it is highly elusive and difficult to capture.[4]

The real essence of Christian life is not one that is elusive or difficult to capture. It is a life shaped, formed, nurtured and practiced—but it must be done so intentionally. As a Seeker, Matteo will follow Jesus of Nazareth and his teachings. With God’s help and that of those who love him, he will live into his baptismal promises. He will regularly come to a table where bread is broken and wine poured for God’s family.   He will resist evil and when he strays, he will ask God’s forgiveness. He will proclaim Christ in his words and in his actions. He will seek and serve Christ in himself and in others. He will work intentionally for justice and peace, and respect the dignity of every human being. With God’s help.

With God’s help, this child of God will live into the fullness for which he has been created. He will be both Keeper and Seeker of God’s Truth. And in his own circle of life, he will keep and seek always, always, always, with the certain and deep knowledge that God loves him, no matter what. Amen.

© The Rev. Dr. Sheila N. McJilton

[1] From http://worldsoccer.about.com/od/glossary/g/Keeper.htm

[2] http://www.fifa.com/worldcup/news/y=2014/m=7/news=heroic-howard-earns-global-praise-2398047.html

[3] John Killinger, The Life, Death and Resurrection of Harry Potter, (Macon: Mercer University Press, 2009), 36.

[4] Ibid., 37.

Many years ago, while I was a seminary student, we had two Quiet Days each year. The first year, I decided that on every Quiet Day, I would use that time to write a poem or reflection of some kind. Earlier in my life, I had sent poem after poem to different literary magazines, hoping to be a published author. No luck. Time and time again, I got rejection notices–some rather abrupt, some kind, but with the same end result. However, amazingly enough, several of the poems I wrote during Quiet Days at Virginia Seminary were published–either in the VTS Journal or in the Anglican Theological Review.

The following poem was my reflection on Ellen Davis’ lecture on Genesis 22. This morning, I preached on this passage, and while I did not include this poem in the sermon, I am posting it along with the sermon.

Reflection on Genesis 22:1-14

 

Dedicated to Dr. Ellen F. Davis

You called me from my father’s land with promise of blessing, and I trusted You.

Hunger made Egypt my exile, and You delivered me.

 

The promise of son and land came again and again, in visions divided by fire, in

Heaven’s destruction of Lot’s family, in a slave’s weeping child, in the cutting of my very body.

Still, though I could not understand, I trusted You.

 

And when the white head of she whom I loved bent over this sweet promise fulfilled,

I wept and thought my heart would burst with joy.

 

Now You have called again, O Lord,

With a voice that slices my soul into countless pieces,

With a voice that burns the promise of stars into total darkness.

 

After so many years and so long the promise, will You now

Seize the heart of my heart?

 

And yet You and I have traveled long together, and I have trusted You.

So now, when You demand back what You gave, my questions stop

In stunned silence.

 

I cannot look his mother in the face, and so

We leave before light for the darkest journey I have ever known.

 

I face You on the mountain, and my white head bends over this sweet boy whom I love.

I weep and know my heart will burst with pain.

 

You have asked too much this time, O God of mine.

But You promised to provide a lamb for sacrifice, and so I struggle to trust.

 

I see nothing but hard stone and glittering knife.

I feel nothing but icy winds of grief that freeze my tears.

I hear nothing but disbelieving whimpers of my son.

 

The Covenant, O Lord, the Covenant!

Do not forsake your promise of faithfulness!

 

For high on this windy mountain of wailing grief,

It is all I have on which to cling.

 

© Sheila N. McJilton

Published in the Virginia Seminary Journal

July 1998

Sacrifice of abraham, parker“After these things, God tested Abraham. . .”

 The twenty second chapter of Genesis has been referred to by one commentator as “a terrifying text.”[1] Indeed, it is perhaps the most terrifying text in Holy Scripture—with the possible exception of the accounts of Jesus’ crucifixion. Yet this text has captured the close attention and questions of scholars, theologians, historians, rabbis and artists for centuries.

Questions persist: Is this a story of “divine child abuse”?[2] Did Abraham not hear God correctly? Is this what is called “an etiological tale” to explain the origins of the shift from human sacrifice to animal sacrifice” in human civilization?[3] Is it an example of one man’s faithfulness to God? Or is it about Isaac—a faithful victim—not unlike Jesus making his way to the cross? As I wrestled with this very difficult text, I was continually drawn back to the teaching of my Hebrew Scriptures professor, Dr. Ellen Davis (who is now at Duke University). My notes from her class on this chapter,    as well as her subsequent writings, have helped me better understand about the theological truths in this passage and how it may connects with our own lives. (N.B. Ellen’s thinking very much informs this sermon.)

It is true that the Caananites—pagans—practiced child sacrifice. It is also clear, from the prophetic writings, that orthodox Israelite faith forbade this pagan practice and lived by higher ethical norms. So yes, this story could symbolically represent either the moment of shifting cultic practice or the difference between cultures. Yet neither Abraham nor God name this issue, nor argue against it. In fact, by the end of the story, God bestows God’s divine blessing in abundance because Abraham has been willing to go to such an extreme to show his faithfulness. Furthermore, God never says—either directly or through an angel—that Abraham has mis-interpreted God’s command. This leads us to the inevitable question: What kind of God is this, anyway?

In the immediate historical context, the drama of this story is heightened by several factors. The passage begins with “After these things, God tested Abraham.” What things? The reader is invited to look back.

Abraham has already had a long journey of faith with God. In other words, this one chapter must not be read in isolation. It is part of a much larger story. At the end of Chapter 11 in Genesis—right after the Tower of Babel story—we are introduced to Abram. In Chapter 12, the Lord says to Abram, “Get you going, away from your land, and away from your birthplace, and away from your father’s house, to the land which I shall show you. And I will make of you a great people, and I will bless you and make your name great. And be a blessing!”[4]

God has tried, repeatedly, to connect with human beings, to invite them into relationship with God. Yet these attempts do not work well. Adam and Eve decide they are wiser than the Creator and get thrown out of Paradise. The first son murders his brother in cold blood. Humankind becomes so corrupt and evil, God finally decides that the Great Flood is the only recourse. Then Noah, who was saved, along with his family, exits the ark, plants a vineyard, then has a drinking problem. A group of human beings decide they are so great, they can build a tower that reaches heaven. So God decides to forget humankind in general. “From now on, God will work through one man, one family, one people, in order to reach all people.[5]” God chooses Abram, but of course Abram—later re-named Abraham—fails God too. Not once, but twice, Abraham pretends that Sarah, his wife, is his sister—so he can acquire more wealth. Deceiving lascivious potentates like Pharoah and Abimelech results in larger herds of sheep and cattle, more silver, and land. Abraham buys an Egyptian slave, Hagar, but he allows such mistreatment of Hagar that she runs away into the desert. She returns, but later, Sarah insists that Abraham get rid of her. So Abraham places bread and a skin of water on Hagar’s shoulders. He sends her and his first-born son, Ishamael out into the desert to face inevitable death.

After these things . . .God calls out to Abraham: “Take your son, your only one, whom you love, Isaac, and get you going to the land of the Moriah. . .”[6] We hear the horrible irony of God’s words. As far as Abraham knows—for he never sees Ishmael again—he now really does have only one son. At the beginning of their relationship, God had used this same phrase: “Get you going.” Then, it was the terrible demand that Abraham leave his land, the land of his birthplace, his father’s land—in other words, everything that was precious—to go to a place he had never seen or known. The call to be a pilgrim on a strange, wild journey. Now God commands Abraham to “get you going” on a horrifying journey to the top of a mountain named Moriah. God has promised this son as one of blessing, to become nations as countless as stars. God has chosen Moriah—what is now known as “the Dome of the Rock”—for sacrifice. God demands the sacrifice of Abraham’s heart. How can Abraham obey this command? Yet he does obey.

In this silent, awful journey towards the mountain, we see Isaac, who must be old enough and strong enough to carry a load of wood, bearing the instrument of his own death. And note that for whatever reason, Isaac does not resist, run or physically struggle.

If the story of the Binding of Isaac is “regarded as the signal biblical instance of human obedience and unquestioning faith,”[7] as Ellen Davis puts it, we are left to wonder what happened next. The end of this story tells us simply that Abraham returned to his servants and they went to Beer-sheba, where Abraham stayed. But in the next chapter, we read that Sarah died in Hebron. One wonders what this incident did to a family.

rembrandt_sacrifice401x600The great artist, Rembrandt, interpreted this story at least twice in his life. As a young painter, “Rembrandt painted a big, flashy canvas that shows a murder in progress: Isaac is sprawled across a rock, chest bare. Abraham is caught just at the point of plunging in the knife; there appears at his side a curly-headed young man, with an urgent look and just a hint of wings. . .But it is a completely different reading of the story that Rembrandt drew later, when he himself had lost children, and was father to an only son. abraham-s-sacrifice-1655Now Isaac kneels beside the seated Abraham, who is cradling his head, covering the boy’s eyes with one hand. . .This time the angel stands behind Abraham with wings outspread. If Rembrandt earlier painted a barely divine messenger boy, now he draws a strong, sheltering figure, who cradles Abraham as he cradles his son. This is the moment of release from God’s demand. But it comes too late for Abraham to feel relief. He seems not even to see the angel, nor does he look at the boy. He has the unfocused stare, the ravaged expression of someone who has survived something unspeakable. Rembrandt shows us just what it costs Abraham to be fully responsive to God and fully responsive to his son. It costs, in T.S. Eliot’s phrase, ‘not less than everything.’”[8]

But there is more to this story. One also may ask what is in this horrifying demand for God. What did God need from Abraham that would cause God to demand such an act of faithfulness? Dr. Davis argues that God has staked everything on this one man, Abraham. And Abraham has already disappointed God. So God—and not the omniscient, omnipotent God we generally think about—needs to know something of the greatest importance—something that God does not know. When stakes are highest, will this man be true to the covenant relationship with God?

Anyone who loves someone knows that loving deeply requires deep vulnerable love. While we do not often think of God being vulnerable, perhaps God is vulnerable. Perhaps God needs us to do our part in being faithful when the chips are down, in order to bring God’s kingdom to earth as it is in heaven. God needed to know if God could depend on Abraham. And in the New Testament, we see this again. The Son, upon whose shoulders rested the instrument of his own death, stands in front of Simon Peter after the resurrection. “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?”[9] Simon Peter, who was to be the rock on which Jesus built his Church, had denied his Lord not once, but three times. Could God depend on Peter? So Jesus, incarnate Son of God, asks Peter to affirm his faith not once, but three times. Jesus had loved, had been totally vulnerable, had opened his heart, and had been faithful, even to the point of death on a cross. These two images: one son of Abraham and centuries later, another son of Abraham. Sparing nothing, giving everything. All for the sake of love.

This truth claims you and me as well. “All that we have, even our own lives and those of the ones most dear to us, belong ultimately to God, who gave them to us in the first place.”[10] I do not think that God will demand of us what God demanded of Abraham, or what Jesus gave for us—because it was been given at Calvary. Yet the least we can do is to offer God our whole selves to a life of faith and thanksgiving.

With such sacrifices, we will pray that God is well pleased. Amen.

© The Rev. Dr. Sheila N. McJilton

“And Abraham stretched forth his hand,” Woodcut printed on Sekishu white, 2001 by Peggy Parker. http://www.margaretadamsparker.com.

Pictures of Rembrandt’s “Abraham and Isaac” (1634 painting) and “Abraham’s Sacrifice,” (1655 drawing) accessed through Google images.

[1] Dan Clendenin, “A Terrifying Text: Abraham and Isaac on Mt. Moriah,” from http://www.journeywithjesus.net/Essays /20140623JJ.shtml. Accessed through http://www.textweek.com.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Kathryn Schifferdecker, “Commentary on Genesis 22:1-14” from http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2138. Accessed through http://www.textweek.com.

[4] Dr. Ellen F. Davis, “’Take Your Son’: The Binding of Isaac” in Getting Involved with God: Rediscovering the Old Testament, (Cambridge & Boston: Cowley Publications, 2001), 54. N.B. “Get you going” is Ellen’s translation.

[5] Ibid., 60.

[6] Ellen Davis’ translation of this passage in Getting Involved with God, 50.

[7] Ibid., 58.

[8] Ibid., 57-58.

[9] John 21:15.

[10] Idem, Kathryn Schifferdecker.

Numbers 11:24-30

Acts 2:1-21

Baptism of Elinor Smith Allen

 Who Do They Think They Are, Anyway?

Pentecost is a feast day that celebrates the Spirit of God—a Spirit that has moved over the face of the deep, the earth and Her people for millennia. Pentecost is a feast day full of joy, fire, wind, many languages that are all God’s language, and unexpected gifts. Yet it is the unexpected direction of the Spirit that is often viewed with uneasiness—even suspicion. In the book of Numbers, Moses—the leader—is burned out, depressed, out of his depth. In desperation, he cries out to God, saying that he would rather be dead if leadership was going to be like this. God responds by telling Moses to call together seventy elders of the people, so that God’s Spirit can grow beyond Moses.

Yet there’s a hitch in this plan for leadership development. Two of the invited leaders—Eldad and Medad—decide to sleep in late that morning, maybe enjoy a cup of coffee at the entrance of their tents, just enjoy the spring sunshine. So they don’t show up for church. God’s Spirit does not seem to care all that much. The Spirit makes a little side trip beyond the Tent of Meeting. She fills Eldad and Medad, as well as the others who have done what they’ve been asked to do.

Of course, it isn’t long before someone runs out of the camp to Moses in the Tent and tattles.”Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp.” Immediately, the church folks get mad and start to complain.    Who do they think they are, anyway? Eldad and Medad didn’t even bother to dress right or come to worship or make any attempt to be like the rest of us. They didn’t do the liturgy right or pray the prayers or sing hymns. They can’t be leaders if all they don’t do things right, the way we’ve always done them!

Joshua, son of Nun, really gets his feathers ruffled. He seems to be afraid that if someone “out there” gets a healthy dose of God’s Spirit and Power, then there won’t be enough to go around for the others who hold legitimate authority. Moses immediately disabuses Joshua of this Scarcity Theology. “Good Lord,” Moses says. “I am so tired and so burned out by leading this Back To Egypt Committee, I wish the Lord would put the Spirit on ALL of them. Let them all prophesy! Let them all lead! God knows I could use all the help I could get right now.”

God’s people simply cannot control God’s Spirit. No matter how hard the Church has tried throughout the millennia, it just never works. Again and again—through the times of prophets, sages, kings—the holy chaos of God’s Spirit rushes, tumbles, blows apart human institutional structures. God’s Spirit creates new things, in every time and every age. When Jesus of Nazareth comes onto the scene of history, his very being is like the Spirit of God coming to life again in a world that has been controlled, tightly held and oppressed by political, economic and religious authorities. When these authorities realize that God’s divine spirit has been unleashed in the world again, threatening the status quo, they crucify him. There. That takes care of him. Who did he think he was anyway?

Yet that crucifixion and death does not, will not, cannot stifle or restrain or destroy the power of God. Out of God’s Spirit bursts resurrection and new life. And when the risen Christ returns to God, the promise of the Holy Spirit keeps the disciples in Jerusalem. On Pentecost, this Holy Spirit who has moved over the face of the deep at the beginning of time now rushes, tumbles and once again, She changes God’s people in ways they never expected. Wind. Fire. New understandings. New members of the family. The gospel now expands to the whole world, well beyond Jesus’ immediate circle of followers.

In the midst of this explosion of God’s Spirit, some people are amazed and astonished. Some are amazed and perplexed. And some are amazed and very suspicious. Who do these people think they are—chattering away in foreign tongues with all the strangers in the square–pretending to be filled with God’s spirit? They’ve got spirits all right. I’ll bet those spirits came from a wine-skin, not God. Once again, God’s “fresh and life-giving Spirit”[1] has transformed a group of people. She has given them new gifts. She has pushed them out of the Church into the world to tell complete strangers, through Jesus the risen Christ, how much God loves them.

I wonder what God’s Holy Spirit is doing today, June 8, 2014. Recently, I have read a number of articles posted on Facebook and blogs about the supposed death of the Church. Official attendance numbers are dwindling. What church folks call “regular attendance” is not what it used to be (in times past, you had to attend weekly to classify your attendance as regular; now it’s two or three times a month, if that). Due to public fights over doctrine, thousands of people—especially young people—equate Christianity with a bad virus. To avoid getting infected, they would rather go sit in Starbucks with their laptop, or sit on their front porch with the Sunday paper, than be associated with Christians. Yet I do not believe that the Holy Spirit’s Pentecost winds have died down. As Mark Twain once said—and I paraphrase—“The rumor of [our] death is greatly exaggerated.” What I do believe is that we in the institutional Church run a risk of getting too comfortable with our rules and our rituals. I do believe that we may be boxed in by our expectations of how people should dress and act, and our insistence on doing things the way we have done them for years.

We must be warned that just when you and I think we have contained God in our prayer, our worship, our historic buildings, the Holy Spirit may just blow through and change everything around us.

Thirty years ago, the author Annie Dillard wrote a book entitled Teaching a Stone to Talk. Using the imagery of someone on an expedition, Dillard makes some cogent—and, I think, ­­truthful—observations about Christianity and Church people: “Why do we people in churches seem like cheerful, brainless tourists on a packaged tour of the Absolute? The tourists are having coffee and doughnuts on Deck C. Presumably someone is minding the ship, correcting the course, avoiding icebergs and shoals, fueling the engines, watching the radar screen, noting weather reports radioed in from shore. No one would dream of asking the tourists to do these things. Alas, among the tourists on Deck C, drinking coffee and eating doughnuts, we find the captain, and all the ship’s officers, and all the ship’s crew. The officers chat; they swear; they wink a bit at slightly raw jokes, just like regular people. The crew members have funny accents. The wind seems to be picking up.

“On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.”[2]

If God’s Holy Spirit runs through our Tent of Meeting and our camp out in the wilderness, God only knows what will happen. The tents may be up-ended. God’s people may spill out onto the streets, passing out crash helmets and telling complete strangers that God loves them and at St. Philip’s, so do we—no matter what.

Someone who colors outside the lines may very well get ordained and start to baptize people. She will say that child’s name and trace an invisible cross with blessed oil on her forehead. She will look into that baby’s eyes and say “Elinor Smith Allen, you are sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever.” And that priest will hold, deep in her heart, a wild, rushing Pentecostal hope that someday, somewhere, someone will look at that child of God and ask, “Who does she think she is, anyway?” Amen.

 © The Rev. Dr. Sheila N. McJilton

[1] David M. Bender in Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 3, (Louisville: John Knox Press, 2011), 16.

[2] Annie Dillard, Teaching A Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters, (New York: Harper & Row Publishers, Inc., 1982), 40-41.

Practicing Presence

This week, I have been reflecting on what it means to connect and to disconnect from each other. One thing that prompted my reflection was an NPR piece entitled “Home Has 4 Wheels: Photos of People Who Have Broken Down Walls.” (To see, go to http://www.npr.org/2014/05/29/316866566/home-has-four-wheels-photos-of-people-whove-broken-down-walls )

A Seattle-based photographer, Andrew Waits, has done a documentary project, focusing upon people who live in motorhomes, vans, buses, cars. Some of these folks are homeless, some have abandoned the stress of a career or a huge mortgage and bills, some are retired, some are disabled. Some are on the road and some are not. Some are in urban areas, some out in the desert.

Waits’ project, “Boondocks,” is a photo essay on the NPR website, ultimately to be a book. As I clicked through Waits’ pictures and his subjects’ comments, one of Waits’ observations about his encounters with people really caught my attention:  “One of the most surprising things was people’s willingness to talk,” says Waits, “to really open up to a complete stranger. Once they realized I wanted to listen, it shocked me how personal people would get. No one turned me away.”

While some of Waits’ subjects are clearly loners (one of them commented that if he could see someone else’s camper, they were too close), there was also an obvious need for some kind of community–even in a transient living situation. As human beings, we need community. If you have ever studied Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, LOVE is one of those needs. And even people who are a bit eccentric or who are avowed loners (not only Waits’ subjects but people who have lived as hermits–even within convents or monasteries) for whatever reason sometimes need the contact of another human being.

What does this have to do with a church?


Recently, I attended a workshop, and one thing that a speaker noted is that people used to come to church for God, and found community. At some point in time, this flipped. Now a lot of people come to church for community, and in doing so, find God.  Folks are in high stress jobs. Young adults finish graduate school, heavily burdened by debt. Some families are separated by work situations, including military deployment. Few of us live close to our families of origin–and sometimes that is deliberate! 

A church community becomes, for some people, a place where, as one of our parishioners has noted, “You can choose your family.”  While that remark drew chuckles, the laughter was not entirely light-hearted. Most of us knew what this means. We have not all experienced a good situation with our families–perhaps the environment out of which we came was abusive, or not nurturing, or anxiety filled. Maybe the family dynamics take too much energy to be worthwhile. So perhaps some folks come through out doors with some trepidation. Will we put too much pressure on them to “get involved”?  Will we have a place for them–whatever place they want?  Will we even speak to them–especially if they do not fit our personal ideas of what an Episcopalian looks like (whatever that is)?  Will they look stupid if they sit down when we stand up or if we kneel and they don’t know to do that? What if they don’t LIKE this particular church family? Yet something drives them to connect–somehow, somewhere–and sometimes they end up at St. Philip’s.

Many years ago, when I was in radio advertising sales, I began to be aware that some clients would open up to me in a way that was astounding. I would walk out of some people’s offices thinking, “Wow, why did he share that with me? I was just there to do business, and by the time I left, I knew all about his mother in a nursing home.”  I began to realize just how little we, as human beings, REALLY listen to each other. Our noisy culture has made us think we have to talk all the time. Yet when we truly are present to someone, when we truly open our hearts to listen, people will tell us what is in their hearts.  As Waits noted, people would get very personal about sharing their lives.

Yet if we are to be open to others, we must practice the presence of being with people. We must pay attention to who, in the room, needs us to walk over and sit down, to begin a conversation. That is not something that comes naturally to the introverts among us–no doubt about that.   But it doesn’t take much.  In the next few weeks, as you come to church, pay attention. Notice someone with whom you have not had a conversation–perhaps a complete stranger (yes, maybe they are strangers because they attend “the other service.”) Take cup of coffee, or a soft drink (if you come to our picnic), walk over and introduce yourself. Ask a question or two, then just pay attention and listen. Be present to that person. See what unfolds in your conversation with, your connection with, another one of God’s children.

I am convinced that one reason Jesus was such a powerful person was that he was completely PRESENT to people with whom he came in contact. I can imagine him with the disciples at days’ end, sitting beside a fire in the dark, leaning forward and looking directly into a person’s face, intent as he listened. I can imagine that when one of those with him posed a question, Jesus was thoughtful and reflective–turning over that question in his mind and heart, not immediately answering with some quick, pat answer. If you and I follow such a Master, perhaps we could think about how we might learn, how we might be better at paying attention, listening, and opening our hearts to “the other” who is with us–whether that person is homeless, a traveler on the way, or someone who has camped for a while among us.

In such encounters, we can allow ourselves to be made better, and deeper, human beings in the image of God. ~Sheila+

african-woman-5ed150fc-f11a-4a8a-8880-b2076ab67a11O Lord, hear the prayers of your daughters; do not hide your face, do not close your ears.

Do you not see, O Lord? Do you not see strangers drag us from our mothers’ homes and force us to live in tents of slavery?

Do you not hear, O Lord? Do you not hear the screams of your daughters who only went for water, only went in search of wood for the dying fire? The wood scatters, the water spills, and the blood soaks the earth as the evil rape the young and force the mothers to watch.

Do you not feel our pain, O Lord? We give love and life with our bodies, but cruel, dark power forces hate into us and cuts innocence out of us; we collapse like torn rags on a dirt floor.

Have mercy on us, Lord, have mercy. We have known too long the weapons of violence and rape; cast away from your presence, the women huddle in war’s dark shadow.

O Lord, do not forget your daughters, for your daughters have not forgotten you. But how long must we wait to drink the water of your love? How long must our tears spill over hot, cracked, dry earth as we wait in darkness?

portrait-of-african-american-woman-with-shawl1O Lord, hear the prayers of your daughters and do not close your ears to the cries of our hearts. Come to us across the dry wasteland of our lives. Bring to us abundant streams of cooling waters and anoint us with Gilead’s healing balm.

When we drink your water, O Lord, we will rejoice at your coming; when we are healed, we will sing your praises.

Then we will know that you have not forgotten your daughters; then we will know that we will sit, white-haired and free, at our own fires again. Amen.

© Sheila N. McJilton in Lifting Women’s Voices: Prayers to Change the World, Margaret Rose, Jeanne Person, Abagail Nelson, Jenny Te Paa, Editors (Harrisburg, New York: Morehouse Publishing, 2009), 125.

Pictures accessed through Google images

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