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John 15:1-8

grapes“My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.”

A few years ago, during “Snowmaggedon,” snow and ice severely damaged a couple of boxwoods in my front yard. When I asked Scott Aker (horticulturalist) what to do, he said, “Cut them way back—almost to the ground.” I looked at him skeptically. Scott laughed and said, “No, really. Cut them way back. They will look dead, but they aren’t. They’ll come back.” Now the only thing I knew about boxwoods is that they are slow growers. But I trusted Scott, so I hacked away. Today, those little boxwoods are lovely and healthy. They filled out nicely, and they did come back—despite their pathetic looks at the time of their severe pruning.

In today’s gospel, Jesus talks about vines. Now I know that a boxwood is not a vine. However, a boxwood, like most plants, needs cutting back or pruning to make it healthier and stronger. Jesus used the metaphor of a vine and its branches, of the need for pruning and cutting back, to teach his disciples a lesson about Christian life. Most first-century Jewish people had a vine, or a fig tree, or an olive tree in their yard—even the poorest of families. So they connected immediately with this image.

grapevineIf you have ever worked with grapevines, you know several things. “In a vine, branches are almost completely indistinguishable from one another; it is impossible to determine where one branch stops and another branch starts. All run together as they grow out of the central vine.”[1] It is critical to a vine that “the branches must be firmly fixed to the trunk so that the life-giving sap can flow through from the trunk. The branches cannot be twisted or broken or diseased: if they are, they must be cut off so as not to impede the growth of the healthy branches.”[2]    If you want healthy vines, you must prune them. In other words, during the dormant season, you must cut back vines that may have grown to be five or six feet tall. You cut them back until the trunk is only one or two feet tall. It looks like you have killed the plant. However, well-pruned grapevines are the ones which yield grapes and wines that excel in appearance, bouquet and taste. Also, “the best grapes are produced closest to the central vine. Understandably, that is where the nutrients are the most concentrated.”[3]

Why does Jesus use this metaphor about a vine? Jesus wants us to understand what it means to be a Christ-follower. Jesus says that God is the vine-grower. The gardener. Jesus is the true—the authentic, the real—vine. We—Jesus’ disciples—are the branches of that real vine. So in order to thrive and grow, we must stay with him, remain part of him, abide in him. We branches must stay fully connected to the vine, for unless we do so, we will not flourish. We must remember that we are not the gardener. We are not the vine. We are the branches, integrally connected to the vine and to each other.

Of course, we disciples forget that truth too easily. We like to think of ourselves as independent, strong people. We forget we must stay connected to Jesus and to each other. We forget just what that means. In today’s world, the number of Spiritual but Not Religious people continues to increase. There is a deep hunger for spirituality.  Yet those spiritually hungry people are seldom part of a faith community. Why? Because they perceive traditional church-goers as hypocritical—they think we talk the talk but do not walk the walk. Too often, the voices these young people hear in the media are conservative and condemning, rather than welcoming, loving and non-judgmental. When what they hear is non-welcoming of their spiritual journeys, they tune out—and go to Starbucks instead of to church.

Regardless of age, every person longs their deeply held beliefs to connect to their real lives, and people want to make a real difference in a world that is chaotic, stressful and unjust. We want what we believe to make a transforming difference in the world. Two days ago, I read an article in the Washington Post, written by a millennial. [Note: all of you will not agree with what she says, so don’t shoot the messenger!] She contends that despite the ethos and offerings of mega-churches these days, millennials are not tempted so much by what she terms loud music, preachers in skinny jeans and lattes in the narthex. Here is what she contends young adults want: “congregations that authentically practice the teachings of Jesus in an open and inclusive way.”[4] She also said, “I want a service that is not sensational, flashy, or particularly ‘relevant.’ I can be entertained anywhere. At church, I do not want to be entertained. I do not want to be the target of anyone’s marketing. I want to be asked to participate in the life of an ancient-future community.”[5]

An ancient-future community. This is what we offer in the Episcopal Church. Worship that is grounded in ancient Church traditions, yet with vision for how the Church can walk in Jesus’ way today—perhaps the way people of faith have walked together peacefully through the streets of Baltimore this week. Perhaps the way some of us wonder out loud and together how we can work to make a real difference in communities where racism and classism have eroded human dignity and future potential.

As a spiritual leader, I believe people want true community—a sense of belonging. At the same time, I know our society has not taught us how to live well in community; rather, it emphasizes so much our individual achievement. Be the best on the team, not just part of the team. Yet Jesus calls us to live in community. That sounds nice, but living in true community is often a bit messy. Love God first. Love our brothers and sisters next.

Yet it is impossible to put a face on God, so we struggle with just how we do that. Also, we know we are supposed to love our sisters and brothers in Christ, but sometimes they are not real lovable. They demand too much of us. They disagree with us. They don’t act the way we think they should act. Yet that’s what Jesus calls us to do. To stay connected with Jesus. To stay connected with them.

To abide, to stay, to remain in community with Christ as the primary vine means that we agree to be part of something greater than our individual selves. Being a Christian is not about me, or you as individuals. It is not about what you “get out” of the group. It is not about what I “need” or “take” from the group. Jesus calls us to be part of the group, to commit to each other and to the community. To come together on Sunday for worship—whether we feel like it or not. We pray together as a group. For example, every committee or group that meets in this parish does not exist for itself—each group must work toward the larger vision of the whole parish. To stay connected means that as we take in God through bread and wine, we remember the Holy One who spoke truth to power, who did not just talk the talk but walk the walk.

To be part of Jesus’ vine means we commit to each other and walk with each other on the journey. We also commit to grow, sometimes to grow up, and to give back, not just take from each other.

Yes, sometimes that is painful, because it means God must shape us and prune us rather severely so that we grow stronger in our faith. In order for us to grow, God calls us to study scripture, say our daily prayers and ask what we can do        to change this world in which we live.

wine and breadGod, the Gardener, creates, tends, prunes and strengthens us. Christ, the Real and Authentic Vine, nourishes us when we stay connected and close to him, learning what he knows, doing what he does. As branches, we connect to Christ until we encircle each other in intricate, interwoven relationships. In Christ, we grow in love. We pool our resources of time, talent, treasure. We pray and break bread together. We work together for justice so that there will be peace. We invite and welcome all who are spiritually hungry into this place, into this faith community. Fed by God in many ways, we become strong and sure, prepared to go out into the world to be fearless witnesses of the risen Christ. In this, God is glorified. Amen.

© The Rev. Dr. Sheila N. McJilton

[1] The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. IX: Luke/John, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), 760.

[2] L. Gregory Bloomquist, “The Key Ingredients for a Fine Wine,” St. Paul University, Ottawa. Accessed from www.textweek.com.

[3] David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, Editors, Feasting on the Word: Year B, Vol 2, (Louisville & London: Westminster John Knox Press), 472.

[4] Rachel Held Evans, “The last temptation of cool,” in The Sunday Washington Post, May 3, 2015, http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/jesus-doesn’t-tweet/2015/04/30/fb07ef1a-ed01-11e4-8666-a1d756d0218e story.html?postshare=754143048643695. Accessed on May 1, 2015.

[5] Ibid.

Pictures accessed through Google images.

mary-magdaleneMark 16:1-8

Terror, amazement, running away. Such words are not those we expect to hear on such a morning—this morning of Easter lilies and flowers. This morning of colorful Easter eggs and the sounds of delighted children. This morning of bells and Alleluias. Yet in Mark’s gospel, this is what we get: terror, amazement, and women who run from a cemetery.

On Friday, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James and Salome had seen where Joseph of Arimathea laid Jesus’ dead body. Because it was the Sabbath, no burial rites could be performed. So now, at dawn, the women slip out of the village to anoint Jesus’ body with spices. They have loved their teacher, so it is the least they can do for him now. At the very least, they can put aromatic spices on his body—if they can figure out how to roll away that huge stone which blocks the front of the tomb. To their amazement, however, the stone is gone from the tomb’s entrance. Someone has moved it aside. Inside the tomb, there is no dead body. Jesus is gone. Near the place where the women had seen Joseph lay the body, there sits a young man dressed in a white robe. This angelic messenger says to them, “Do not be amazed; you seek Jesus of Nazareth who was crucified. He has risen, he is not here; see the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him, as he told you.”

The women react the way you and I would likely have reacted. They stand, rooted to the ground in stunned amazement. Frightened by the sudden sight of an angelic messenger in shimmering white. Confused by the reality of an empty tomb. The line between order and chaos, the line between reality and fantasy, the line between life and death—these lines have suddenly, inexplicably blurred. No human being can take in all that in just a few moments. What in the world has just happened? If this empty tomb and this angel mean that he is alive, then where is Jesus? Trembling and astonished, the women run away, out of the cemetery, away from that empty tomb.

This resurrection story in the gospel of Mark leaves us right here. It leaves us with “And they went out and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had come upon them; and they said nothing to any one for , for they were afraid.”

Trembling. Astonishment. Fear. That is how Mark’s gospel ends, and no one has ever been happy about that—especially scholars and preachers who must wrestle with a text for Easter Sunday morning! Yet here it is: this incredible story before us. The other gospels do give us accounts of Jesus’ death, resurrection, and post-resurrection encounters. These other accounts prove that eventually, these faithful women did tell the other disciples. Little by little, the truth dawns on all of them that something mysterious, something bigger than anything in the world, has happened. Christ has risen from the dead. Throughout the centuries, that power and truth has transformed the lives of millions of people.

You and I are rational 21st century human beings. We like a good mystery, a cliff-hanger. But by the end of the movie or book, we want all the loose ends tied up neatly in a conclusion that makes sense. Yet we do not live in a world that always makes sense, do we?

Nearly a year ago, a terrorist group named Boka Haran kidnapped over two hundred Nigerian school girls. We still do not know where these young women are.

In recent days, several states in this country have pushed legislation that would—as one writer has noted—“grant individuals and businesses the right to discriminate against “under-protected groups under some squishy definition of ‘religious freedom.’”[1] Does that make logical sense to you?

A week and a half ago, on March 24, a twenty seven year old co-pilot deliberately crashed a commercial jet into the French Alps, killing himself and 149 innocent people. Does that make logical sense? Of course it does not. And the on-going attempts by media to tie up all the loose strands dangling from such an event would be laughable if the situation were not so tragic.

Our lives often do not make sense. They are not neat and orderly. They are messy and chaotic and filled with dysfunction and fear and illness and pain and grief and dying. This is where Mark leaves us this morning. At the edges of our real lives. I think that the writer of Mark’s gospel knew exactly what he was doing. He deliberately left us to wonder where we would meet Jesus. He forces us to leave the tomb, to go to Galilee—wherever that might be—to find the risen Christ.

We can read every book in the world on the resurrection. We can watch every movie. We can debate, or deny, or even scoff at the resurrection story. Yet even the most brilliant person among us this morning cannot prove whether the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth happened, or how it happened. It seems that God, the Creator of Heaven and Earth, did not need us to be there. In one split micro-second of time, somewhere in the middle of the night, that Creator of Heaven and Earth spoke a Word you and I never heard. Energy and light exploded in the darkness. Jesus threw off the linens that wrapped his dead body. Without one human being there to announce it, Jesus has left the building. Where has he gone? Where will we find him? We stand there, shaking our heads, looking around in terror and amazement. What do you do when death is suddenly life?

You knew what to do with the old way of doing things. But when something new confronts you, that is a game-changer. And when that something new is that someone is raised from the dead, that’s a real game-changer, is it not? The angel says, “Go to Galilee.” Stop looking in an empty tomb. He’s gone ahead of us there. But where, exactly, IS Galilee? Where is my Galilee? Where is yours? Where do we need to go to find the Lord of Life in the midst of our messy, chaotic, dysfunctional lives?

empty-tomb-copyIf Jesus is not lying dead in the tomb, that means resurrection power has been set loose on this world, and that leaves you and me in a possible crisis of faith. Jesus’ resurrection and his going ahead of us means that there is hope. There is life. There is some power that has already overcome darkness and evil. Yet Mark is clear about one thing: you and I have to leave that empty tomb. We must move forward to find that power, that light, that joy, that hope. In other words, you and I have something to do to make Jesus’s resurrection a living reality. We can no longer live in a country of hopelessness and despair. We must do something. We must mean something. We must tell others about this possibility of hope and joy.

Every one of you here this morning longs for your life to mean something. We want to know that there is something greater than we as individuals, something that makes sense on some cosmic level, something that transcends terrorism, depression, cruelty, hatred and evil. Yet perhaps what Jesus wants us to do is to move forward. We must leave a place of death and move towards a place of life. We must be willing to go to another place of meaning in order to make a difference in our own lives or the lives of others. Out of our faith in Jesus Christ, we are called to live differently. To go to Galilee. Where is that?

Galilee is wherever you work. Galilee is found in an encounter at Starbucks or the grocery store or a restaurant. Galilee is where you teach your children to say grace at meals or bedtime prayers. Galilee is at Elizabeth House or the Grassroots Day Center where many of you work with our homeless brothers and sisters. Galilee is a hospital room or hospice room, or a funeral home, or any other place where you and I gather as compassionate, hopeful human beings. There is Galilee. There is the risen Christ.

Here is the risen Christ: in the faces and bodies and hopes and fears and amazement and joys of God’s people. We gather in this sacred space, at a holy table this day. In Word and Sacrament, together we proclaim the greatest mystery of all time,  the greatest story of all time. Beyond our fear, trembling and amazement, God is. God is. Jesus has shown us our lives in God can be: Deep. Hopeful. Joyful.

Flowers SmChrist has died. Christ has risen. Christ will come again. In the meantime, go to Galilee. There you will find the risen Christ. There, he waits, with his arms wide open and his face overflowing with love—for you. Amen.

© The Rev. Dr. Sheila N. McJilton

[1] http://www.odysseynetworks.org/on-scripture-the-bible/daring-to-hope-in-the-stress-of-uncertainty-mark-161-8/ . Accessed at http://www.textweek.com on April 4, 2015.

First two pictures accessed through Google images. Picture of flowers by McJilton

Lent II: Mark 8:31-38

ash-wed“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”

Really? Are we Christians crazy? Who in their right mind would follow a man who tells us to pick up a cross and follow him? Really? But that was not part of the deal in the beginning, you know. Or we didn’t think it was.

sea_of_galileeFirst, Jesus gets baptized, and that part goes really well. Then Jesus spends time out in the wilderness, but Mark’s gospel does not dwell much on that time. Jesus calls Peter, James, John and Andrew to follow him and they leave their fishing nets to do just that. Next comes Jesus, miraculous healer, powerful preacher. He casts out demons. He tells parables about sowing seeds in all kinds of soil. In a midnight action drama, he commands the sea and wind to be still—and they obey. On the shore, he takes a few loaves of bread and some fish and feeds over five thousand people. This is all exciting! Who would not want to go along for this kind of ride–especially if you are Peter, James, John, Andrew and others who think that at the end of this ride is glory. They believe Jesus will overthrow the Roman government and set the Jewish people free.

After all, Jesus has asked his disciples—just a few verses earlier—“Who do you say that I am?” When Simon Peter says “You are the Christ,” which means “the anointed One,” Jesus does not say “Are you crazy?” No. Jesus just tells the disciples not to tell anyone.

Now in the first century Jewish culture, “the anointed one, the messiah, is someone who [is] commonly understood to be the hero who [will] come with super-human powers to rescue the people, who remain passive pawns in a divinely ordained game of geopolitics.”[1] Yet if we had been paying closer attention, we would already have seen some signs of tension and trouble with this anointed One.

Jesus has already upstaged some scribes, Pharisees and priests by his words and actions. They are not amused. t one point, some folks send for Jesus’s family to take him home. “He’s possessed,” the people tell his mama. But what his mam and brothers get for their troubles is that when they show up at the door, Jesus pretty much disowns them. He asks, “Who are my mother and my brothers? Whoever does the will of God, that’s who.”

So all is not sweetness and light in this journey with Jesus, but the disciples seem to have another ending in mind for this journey than Jesus does. Midway through Mark’s gospel, Jesus knows that he must cure his own disciples’ blindness with some blunt truth about suffering and death.

We must keep in mind the context of the people who first hear Mark’s gospel. It was likely written in the 60’s or 70’s, but before the Temple fell in Jerusalem. If the original Markan community is in or near Rome, then Nero is in power, so this is “probably a persecuted community.”[2] In fact, it could well be that some of these folks who have followed Jesus’s teachings have recanted to the emperor to save their own lives. If that is true, then those who have remained true to the faith must remind others that following Jesus involves suffering. After all, Jesus has told God’s truth to Church and Roman power, and for his efforts, they beat him and executed him. Mark’s gospel must emphasize that Jesus of Nazareth has not chosen a life of glory, of power. Nor is Jesus some kind of super-man. Instead, Jesus uses the term “Son of Man,” a term from the Old Testament book of Daniel. In contemporary terms, we could translate that as “the Human One.” So Jesus wants his disciples to understand that if we are to live most fully, we must learn to live in real and authentic ways—which means suffering.

What would our lives look like if we lived as fully authentic human beings? If we are honest, we know that it is very difficult to be authentic. Our society is one that glorifies good looks, lots of money, movie stars who walk red carpets. How does this affect our practice of our Christian faith—or does it? Jesus tells us that we can have the best of what society offers, yet lose our souls. What does this mean on a practical level?

Some people in this congregation work for, or own, successful businesses. Many of you work for the government. There may be tension in such situations where your Christian faith is concerned. Some of you have told me that you cannot talk about your Christian faith in your business world. It is okay to act ethically, to be compassionate, to have a sense of peace about you—in fact, perhaps the actual practice of your Christian faith is a witness to the cross in itself. If someone notices that you act differently from others in the office and ask you about it, well, then I suppose that opens a door, does it not? Yet is it not ironic that on a micro-level, to pick up your cross and carry it means that you cannot talk about your spiritual journey unless someone explicitly asks you about it?

A number of our families have youth whose coaches require Sunday practice or Sunday games. Here is tension. If you tell a coach that you cannot come to practice or play in a game because you have to go to church, you will either get laughed at, benched,  or thrown off the team. Is it not ironic that on a micro-level, to pick up your cross and carry it means that you must negotiate the terms of walking your spiritual journey and practicing your faith with practicing a sport?

In today’s gospel, Jesus makes it very clear that if we intend to follow him, to go behind him, to go where he goes and do what he does, then our lives will include suffering and rejection.

I must admit to you that I have struggled with this concept as I have considered this gospel in the past week. Not being able to talk about our Christian faith at work or coordinating sports schedules with Sunday morning worship is hardly in a category of suffering. What do I, twenty first century Christian, really understand about suffering?

coptic christiansOn February 15, ISIS terrorists led twenty-one Coptic Christians onto a beach in Libya. They forced the men to kneel. The camera panned slowly down the line. Only one had any look of fear on his face. The others looked resigned, or stoic. One was moving his lips—probably in prayer. As the camera moved slowly, one of the terrorists ranted about America and President Obama. Then they ordered the twenty-one Christians to lie face down in the sand. One by one, they cut their throats, then cut their heads off. The last scene on this video—which was entitled “To the Nation with the Cross”—was of the surf. All of the water was blood red. Twenty-one Christians died because they professed Jesus Christ as Lord. That is suffering. The people who loved these men now suffer from grief. Where are you and I compared to these men?

Yet there is suffering in this world. To live is to suffer. Perhaps when Jesus calls us to go with the Human One, the Son of Man, he is telling us that to be fully human, we must suffer along with others. We must have compassion. Compassion. “Com,” which means “to love together with” has roots in Latin. Passion, or Passus is related to the English word “patient” or “one who suffers.”[3] Therefore, to be compassionate is to love together with one who suffers. Compassion is ranked as a virtue in many philosophies, and in almost all world religions, it is the highest virtue.

With whom are we called to suffer as we walk this Christian journey? Is there someone who is dying? Compassion. Does someone grieve the loss of a love? We are there, with compassion. We can be compassionate with the homeless men, women and children who fill our winter shelters. Those of us who are white can suffer with our African American brothers and sisters who live daily with racial profiling. We open our hearts in love to others who suffer. In that openness, we may be transformed.

To be fully human is to see beyond ourselves and our own sufferings to others. It is also to allow suffering to transform us in some way. I would like to close this sermon with one person’s decision to pick up a cross and follow Jesus and what that meant for his life. In 1960, the Christian Century magazine asked Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to reflect about the influence of his sufferings on his thought. This was Dr. King’s response:

Dr. King “Due to my involvement in the struggle for the freedom of my people, I have known very few quiet days in the last few years. I have been arrested five times and put in Alabama jails. My home has been bombed twice. A day seldom passes that my family and I are not the recipients of threats of death. I have been the victim of a near fatal stabbing. So in a real sense I have been battered by the storms of persecution. I must admit that at times I have felt that I could no longer bear such a heavy burden, and have been tempted to retreat to a more quiet and serene life. But every time such a temptation appeared, something came to strengthen and sustain my determination. I have learned now that the Master’s burden is light precisely when we take his yoke upon us.

“My personal trials have also taught me the value of unmerited suffering. As my sufferings mounted I soon realized that there were two ways that I could respond to my situation: either to react with bitterness or seek to transform the suffering into a creative force. I decided to follow the latter course. Recognizing the necessity for suffering I have tried to make of it a virtue. If only to save myself from bitterness, I have attempted to see my personal ordeals as an opportunity to transform myself and heal the people involved in the tragic situation which now obtains. I have lived these last few years with the conviction that unearned suffering is redemptive.

World-Trade-Center-Cross-620x410“There are some who still find the cross a stumbling block, and others consider it foolishness, but I am more convinced than ever before that it is the power of God unto social and individual salvation. So like the Apostle Paul I can now humbly yet proudly say, ‘I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.’ The suffering and agonizing moments through which I have passed over the last few years have also drawn me closer to God. More than ever before I am convinced of the reality of a personal God.”[4]

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”

Be fully human. Walk with others who suffer, and know their hearts. In your own suffering, choose not to be bitter, but to be transformed, even when you do not know what that will look like. Know that in your suffering, your Lord goes before you, and he goes with you. Amen.

 

© The Rev. Dr. Sheila N. McJilton

[1] “Not a Super-Hero, but an Authentic Human, from http://scarletletterbible.com/authentic-human/. Accessed at www.textweek.com on Feb. 26, 2015.

[2] David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, Editors, Feasting on the Word: Year R, Volume 2, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 71.

[3] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Compassion

[4] http://mlk-kpp01.stanford.edu/index.php/encyclopedia/documentsentry/suffering_and_faith/

All pictures accessed through Google Images

ecw1Address to EDOW ECW on Saturday, March 1, 2015

Theme: “Stir Up the Spirit”         2 Timothy 1:6-7, 9a

  “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 through the laying on of my hands; for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of live and of self-discipline.”(2 Timothy 1:5-7)

The apostle Paul knows that he does not have much time. Imprisoned in Rome, having suffered many times for the sake of the gospel, Paul knows that his death is imminent. When you know that you will die soon, every word counts. Every word is precious. So Paul reminds Timothy, his beloved child in the faith, of what is important. The Christian faith is important. The gifts of the Holy Spirit are important. The tradition of passing on both the faith and the Spirit’s gifts is important. Paul reminds Timothy of how Timothy first received his faith: Through his grandmother Lois and his mother Eunice.

The apostle Paul is no dummy, is he? If you want to get someone’s attention, just mention her mama and her grandmamma. This matrilineal line has nurtured and sustained Timothy as a child. Now, Paul tells Timothy to step up and step out. Do your mama proud. Do your grandma proud. Do Jesus proud.

In September, 2012, a large group of clergy and lay people gathered in the Washington National Cathedral for the memorial service of one of my spiritual mothers: The Rev. Janice Marie Robinson. As the clergy vested, hugged each other and wept, my friend and colleague Canon Michele Hagans approached me. She looked me straight in the face and said, “Don’t you cry. Don’t you cry. If one of us cries, it’ll all be over.” So I did my best not to lose control of my emotions on that very emotional day. But I felt more encouraged when I learned that Bishop Jane Holmes Dixon, the preacher at Janice’s service, was not sure SHE could get through the sermon without weeping. Four months later, on Christmas, that good bishop joined Janice on the other side of Life. At Bishop Dixon’s memorial service, I was talking to the Rev. Dr. Joan Beilstein. Through my grief, I asked Joan, “What are we going to do, Joan? We are losing the grandmothers of our faith.” She looked at me and smiled. “Sheila,” she replied, “We ARE the grandmothers now. We have become the grandmothers.”

Frankly, her response did not comfort me, although I understood it. The Janice Robinsons and Jane Dixons and Dorothy Heights have gone before us. They have taught us, laughed with us, challenged us, set an example for us. Now it is our turn to rekindle, to kindle afresh, to stir up, the gifts of God which are in us and others. How do we do that? Paul reminded Timothy that “God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.” I would like to reflect for a few minutes on each one of those:  power, love, self-discipline. Since it is the season of Lent, I will do that in reverse order.

We think more naturally of self-discipline during these forty days and night of Lent. Perhaps you decided that you would be more self-disciplined for Lent—you have given up sweets, or drinking alcohol. Maybe you have taken on an extra discipline of Bible study or prayer. My own long-held morning discipline is to read the daily scriptures in Forward Day by Day and that meditation. Recently, I added another, after I watched a video narrated by one of the Episcopal monks with the Society of St. John the Evangelist in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It was about how to stop. How to stop. Now for those of you who do not know me, you need to know that I don’t do stop. Well, maybe that’s not quite true. Someone who loves me a lot tells me—with exasperation in her voice, “You only have two speeds: full tilt and stop. You need to slow down!” So maybe I do stop—but only when full tilt no longer works. I daresay that my DNA is such that I will not ever learn to slow down very well. But then I decided to watch this video done by Br. Geoffrey Tristam, He challenged those who watched the video to “sit in total stillness for five minutes today.”

Do you know how long five minutes is? If you are not accustomed to sitting in total stillness, five minutes is a very long time. Yet I was intrigued by what Br. Geoffrey said, his challenge to sit for five minutes, do nothing, and see what that feels like. I have now kept that five minutes of silence for about five days. I try not to think about anything. I try to let go of thoughts when they come. So far, I doubt I would get a passing grade in the class of Sit in Total Silence for Five Minutes, but I am working on my self-discipline. I have no doubt that every woman sitting here today could think of some discipline that you have tried—perhaps even succeeded in doing. Perhaps you are doing that during this Lenten season.

In our Baptismal Covenant, we are asked “Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers?” We respond, “I will, with God’s help.” So whether we consider ourselves “successful” in the various ways we practice self-discipline—whether we do that just during Lent, or all year long—I think the point is that we “continue” in that practice. I doubt that God ever expects us to get perfect at doing a discipline. However, I do think God expects us to engage in spiritual practices of regular worship, of breaking of bread together, of saying our prayers for ourselves and each other. In other words, if I never practice spending five minutes a day being totally still, silent, and focused on God, I can never expect to sit like that for ten or twenty or forty minutes. Yet if I never practice this kind of stillness, I just might miss hearing the voice of God deep in my soul. Without self-discipline, I will miss being reminded of my faith. I may miss the deep stirring up of a gift I have to offer the Lord. I may miss an opportunity to help others re-kindle their gifts.

Heart in Sand 2 “God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.” A spirit of love. The foundation of our Christian faith is love. First, it is God’s love—the love that created the world before time existed. The divine Ruach, the rushing, creative, chaotic feminine wisdom of God that gave birth to order out of darkness and disorder. You and I live in a world that often trivializes or sexualizes the word love. Hallmark stockholders have made a lot of money out of the word “love.” We say we love people or things in our lives, but what does that really mean?

If you have been married to anyone for any significant length of time, you understand that sometimes, love is sheer tenacity, a grit-your-teeth will to make this marriage work. Sometimes, love is tough love. Tough love is the kind that stands in front of someone and says this: “Your drinking is destroying you and our life together, and I am not going to stand by and watch that happen anymore.” Tough love.

God loves us, yet I wonder how deeply we believe that in real time and in real life. If we call ourselves Christians, then at some point in time, we may very well have to come to terms with believing the love even if we don’t feel the love. In other words, God’s love was shown in its ultimate fullness through the suffering of Jesus of Nazareth as he hung on a cross. So why do we think love does not include suffering? It does. Life is not easy. Life is full of suffering. And sometimes love is full of suffering.

It is, of course, easier to identify with our own personal suffering—or that of loved ones who are ill, in pain, living with dementia, struggling with cancer. Yet I believe that as baptized Christians, the Lord calls the strong mothers and grandmothers of the faith to pay attention to larger suffering.

homeless-shelterWe live in the Washington, DC area, where churches and other organizations work hard to provide shelter for our homeless brothers and sisters. Yet the reality is that there are few shelters that are really safe for women and children. Hundreds of children go to school every morning who are hungry. They have slept in places that children should not have to sleep—a noisy shelter where they could be sexually abused, where they can easily see sights that children should not see. They go to school ashamed, because they have no home. No address. No way to fit into the culture they envision to be “the norm.”

Another example of love and suffering: If you are an African-American mother or grandmother with sons or grandsons or nephews, then you know, too well, of the tension and underlying fear in this country because of racism. Incarceration rates for African American males is staggering in comparison to white males. According to the NAACP, “African Americans are incarcerated at nearly six times the rate of whites.”[1] “One in six black men had been incarcerated as of 2001. If current trends continue, one in three black males born today can expect to spend time in prison during his lifetime.”[2]

I Can't BreatheI cannot say that I know this kind of suffering. I am a white woman, raised in the South, with the opportunity to be well educated. My own son is thirty six.   I do not worry, every morning, about whether he will be a victim of racial profiling. I do not worry that he will plead “I can’t breathe.” I do not worry that he will move too quickly and be shot by a police officer. I do not personally know this kind of suffering. Yet if one of us suffers, the rest of us suffer as well. Whatever is done to my brother or sister is done to me. Whatever is done to my brother or sister is done to Jesus.

So, we strong women of all colors, all nations, all races, must come together as sisters in the faith—not just to speak words of justice, but to do works of justice. Maybe that means that we support the Bishop John Walker School for Boys. Maybe that means that white women stop denying that racism is alive and well in the 21st century. Maybe that means that we intentionally work with women of color to raise the issues in ways that educate and illuminate the systems that hold power and privilege out of reach of too many of God’s children.

What if Dr. King’s work has been left undone so that we might finish it—you and me? Will we take up the issues of God’s justice for all of God’s children? Do we dare that greatly as people of God? As women of God? “For God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.” God has not given you and me a spirit that belongs to cowards. No. God has given us a spirit of power. Power that belongs to us because the power of God’s Holy Spirit dwells deep within us. Yet have we claimed the God-given power that we possess? Have we used it fully?

The Christian faith has come to us through generations of men and women. It is a faith of love, of suffering, of discipline, of practices, of power. Yet too often, we keep that power hidden. Too often, we forget that God has “saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works but according to God’s own purpose and grace.”[3]

What is God’s purpose? I believe it is to share the good news of God’s love through Jesus Christ. You and I are called to use our self-discipline, our love, our power, to stir our spiritual gifts up in order to make disciples for Jesus Christ. To make disciples for Jesus is not limited to the people who wear collars and stand up front every Sunday. Every person who is baptized is challenged to tell and to show the good news of God’s love. To invite others in to experience that deep, powerful love that transforms our hearts and our lives. To connect in relationship with those in other parishes, in other geographic areas in our Diocese of Washington. To take the power God has given us and to multiply it, just as Jesus multiplied loaves and fishes for a big, hungry crowd of people.

This world is hungry for love—not a Hallmark kind of love, but for a deep, abiding, powerful love. The kind of love that gives shelter and food to children and mamas who need shelter and food. The kind of love that provides books to read and teachers to teach children who will never attend a private school. The kind of love that digs deep every morning into God’s holy scripture. The kind of love that sits still long enough to hear God tell me what I can do today to make God’s world more just. The kind of love that knows who has given us power, faith and authority to stand up, to speak out, and to make a difference—in each parish that is represented here today, in this Diocese of Washington, and in the National Episcopal Church.

So as Paul told Timothy, “Hold to the standard of sound teaching that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. Guard the good treasure entrusted to you, with the help of the Holy Spirit living in us.”

This day, promise God that this next week, you will do something to nurture, to support, to pass on the faith of Christ Jesus as it has been passed on to you. You have the self-discipline. You have the love. You have the power. Now have the courage to stir up those gifts that God gave you, take those gifts out into the Church and the world.Make your mama proud. Make your grandmamma proud. Make Jesus proud. Amen.

Episcopal Church Shield copy© The Rev. Dr. Sheila N. McJilton

[1] From http://www.naacp.org/pages/criminal-justice-fact-sheet

[2] Ibid.

[3] 2 Timothy 1:9a.

Picture of heart in sand taken by McJilton on Iona, Scotland. Other pictures accessed through Google images.

Ash Wednesday

“Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing you have made and forgive the sins of all who are penitent: Create and make in us new and contrite hearts. . .” (from Collect for Ash Wednesday)

ash-wedLife and death. We prefer life—maybe because we think we know more about life than about what lies in the realm of death—or we fear what lies in that realm. So we may not want to hold life and death up equally. They are opposites, we might argue. And many of us have had to face those opposites in the last year. Yet I would like to invite you to think about life and death in a different way on this Ash Wednesday.

Water. Ashes. Water gives us life. Water is a symbol of baptism and new birth. Ashes are a symbol of death. At the end of our lives, we return to ashes. We return to the good earth out of which life comes. Adamah. Earth. Yet even as we hold, and consider, these two symbols—one of life and one of death—I would like to invite you into forty days of life—a life that is different. A life that may hold greater richness, depth and joy for you at the end of it.

A while back, I began to read a nightly devotion from Sr. Joan Chittister’s book entitled The Rule of Benedict: A Spirituality for the 21st Century. Monday night, I read the following: “Each of us should have two pockets,” the rabbis teach. “In one should be the message, ‘I am dust and ashes,’ and in the other we should have written, ‘For me the universe was made.’”[1] I am dust and ashes. And yet, for me the universe was made. In other words, I come from the earth. I will return to the earth. Yet I am part of something greater—the universe, with its vast expanse of galaxies, stars, suns—vast planetary systems I cannot see with my bare eyes, even on a clear, cold winter night in a field.

In his Rule of Life, St. Benedict reminds us of this dual nature of death and life. Benedict set up a rule of life that included prayer, work, leisure. A rule, a balance of life reminds us that we are not God. We cannot seclude ourselves and pray all the time. We cannot rest all the time. We cannot work all the time. If we do one of those things and forget the others, we will throw our lives into a dangerous imbalance. We need life and blessing. We need death and forgiveness.

Benedict structured the prayer life of his community around two psalms: Psalm 67 and Psalm 51. Benedict assumes that we have some kind of prayer life. Psalm 67 is a “plea for continued blessing,” and Psalm 51 reveals our “need for continual forgiveness; a sense of God’s goodness and our brokenness; a sense of God’s greatness and our dependence; a sense of God’s grandeur and our fragility. Prayer, for Benedict, is obviously not a routine activity. It is a journey into life, its struggles and its glories. It is sometimes difficult to remember, when days are dull and the schedule is full, that God has known the depth of my emptiness but healed this broken self regardless, which, of course, is exactly why Benedict structures prayer around Psalm 67 and Psalm 51. Day after day after day.”

Our journey through life has the reminders of blessing and need for forgiveness. It is full of life and joy, and it is full of struggle, pain, betrayal and death. Yet we do not give up hope. We look at this water and we remember. We remember that 50-60% of our bodies are made up of water. We remember that water is both a symbol of life and of death. We can drink water. We can also drown in it.

waters of baptismEvery time we have a baptism, I move my hand through water in this baptismal font. I feel the wetness and fluid nature of the water. I make the sign of the cross IN it as I bless the water. Then—because you cannot see that sign—I make the sign of the cross OVER the water three times—in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. I then take a beautiful big sea shell—symbol of baptism and new life that it is—and with it, I pour that clear, holy, fluid water over the forehead of a baby or a child or a teenager or an adult who has come to those waters of new birth. Three times, they feel that water. They have decided—or their parents on their behalf—to follow Jesus. To learn from Jesus. To walk with Jesus. To do what Jesus did—come to worship for prayer and spiritual nourishment, then to go out into the world to be the healing hands of Jesus. To feed the hungry, to visit people in jail, to do justice, to love mercy, to walk humbly with the God who creates, redeems and sustains us—over and over, day by day by day.

ashesThen there are the ashes. The ashes are dark and grainy. They need a bit of holy oil mixed in with them to make them stick. Perhaps it is fitting that I mix a bit of holy oil into these palm branches ground to dark, grainy powder, because at baptism, after I pour water over someone’s forehead, I make the invisible, yet indelible sign of the cross on his or her forehead. “You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism, and marked as Christ’s own forever,” I say. Forever. Day by day by day into forever. A forever that means that after all the water in my body is gone, and I am only coarse, grainy ashes given back to Mother Earth, I belong to God, the creator of heaven and earth.

“I am dust and I am ashes. AND for me the universe was made.” I am a blessed, beloved child of God. I must never forget that. You are a blessed, beloved child of God. You must never forget that.

HolyLentDuring these forty days of Lent, I invite you to find some way to remind yourself of your two pockets. Make two cards. On one, write “I am dust and ashes.” On the other, write “For me the universe was made.” Every day, read Psalm 67 and Psalm 51. We may have come from dust and to dust shall we return. However, what we do between those times of dust and ashes makes a difference. We can waste that time on worry, work, clutter, eating or drinking to dull the pain we carry in our hearts and bodies, living a terrible imbalance of existence. Or, today, we can vow to live our lives differently.

God invites us to think about how imbalanced our lives are between dust and ashes. God invites us to remember that we are beloved children, created for a purpose. In these forty days, I invite you to think about that. Why are you here? For what purpose has God put you here, right now on this earth? You have something to do. Something you are supposed to do. What is that? Maybe you know, and have been avoiding it. Maybe you don’t know, so you need to spend some quiet time to reflect about it, to ask God what that something is.

Life and death. Water and ashes. The ability, the potential to live the time we are given to its fullest potential. “I am dust and ashes.” “For me the universe was made.” Put those cards in your pockets. Pray them. Think about them. Wonder with them. At the end of Lent, we will celebrate how we have lived. Fully. Differently. Thoughtfully. Joyfully. Always with joy. Always with love. Always with love. Amen.

© The Rev. Dr. Sheila N. McJilton

[1] From entry on Feb.16 – June 17 – Oct. 17 in Joan Chittister, The Rule of Benedict: A Spirituality for the 21st Century, (New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1992 & 2010), 113.

Pictures accessed through Google images

Yesterday, I printed a hand-out for those who were interested in taking something home to reflect upon this week. It included two versions of the Gospel from yesterday (Matthew 25:14-30) and some information about Collects in general, and then specifically, the Collect of the Day yesterday.  In case you missed worship yesterday, here is the information and scripture.

What is a COLLECT?

A COL-lect (emphasis on first syllable) is a word that signifies the summing up of the prayers of all the individual people who have come together to pray and worship together. In other words, a COL-lect col-LECTS (emphasis on second syllable) the prayers. The Collect of the Day, which comes right after the Salutation (“Blessed be God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. . .”) serves, on some level, to “the collecting of the people at the start of the Mass.”[1]

Over the years (since the 1549 Book of Common Prayer), the Collect acquired a formal structure—kind of like Haiku. The simplest form has three parts: a preamble (address, invocation), a petition, and a conclusion (mediation). No matter what Collect we pray on Sunday, it has these three parts. In many Episcopal Churches, only the priest says the Collect of the Day. At St. Philip’s, our norm is that all of the gathered pray it. The priest alone prays “The Collect for Purity” on behalf of all of us.

HISTORY OF THE COLLECT FOR PROPER 28

“New emphasis on the Scriptures in the Reformation period is reflected in this collect, composed for the 1549 Book. It is based on Romans 15:4, the initial verse of the Epistle for the second Sunday in Advent, the day with which this collect was associate in earlier Prayer Books. The word ‘learning’ means ‘instruction,’ not ‘memorization’ and the phrase ;by patience and comfort of thy holy Word,’ in the traditional version means ‘by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the Scriptures’ (Revised Standard Version). The word ‘all’ in the preamble recalls the criticism of the medieval service books in the preface to the first Prayer Book (Historical Documents, (pp 866-867 [of our BCP]): course readings from scripture were so often interrupted by saints’ days that the Scriptures were never read in their entirety toward the close of the middle ages. The first Prayer Book provided an orderly arrangement for reading almost the whole of the Scriptures within the course of each year in the daily office.”[2]

 COLLECT FOR PROPER 28                    (Traditional, prayed at 8:00 service)

Blessed Lord, who hast caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant that we may in such wise hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them; that, by patience and comfort of thy holy Word we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which thou hast given us in our Savior Jesus Christ; who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

(Contemporary, prayed at 10:15 service)

Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

[1] Marion J. Hatchett, Commentary on the American Prayer Book, (San Francisco: HarperCollins Publishers, 1995), 163.

[2] Ibid., 195.

Matthew 25:14-30                 Common English Bible (CEB)      Parable of the valuable coins

14 “The kingdom of heaven is like a man who was leaving on a trip. He called his servants and handed his possessions over to them. 15 To one he gave five valuable coins,[a] and to another he gave two, and to another he gave one. He gave to each servant according to that servant’s ability. Then he left on his journey.

16 “After the man left, the servant who had five valuable coins took them and went to work doing business with them. He gained five more. 17 In the same way, the one who had two valuable coins gained two more. 18 But the servant who had received the one valuable coin dug a hole in the ground and buried his master’s money.

19 “Now after a long time the master of those servants returned and settled accounts with them. 20 The one who had received five valuable coins came forward with five additional coins. He said, ‘Master, you gave me five valuable coins. Look, I’ve gained five more.’

21 “His master replied, ‘Excellent! You are a good and faithful servant! You’ve been faithful over a little. I’ll put you in charge of much. Come, celebrate with me.’

22 “The second servant also came forward and said, ‘Master, you gave me two valuable coins. Look, I’ve gained two more.’

23 “His master replied, ‘Well done! You are a good and faithful servant. You’ve been faithful over a little. I’ll put you in charge of much. Come, celebrate with me.’

24 “Now the one who had received one valuable coin came and said, ‘Master, I knew that you are a hard man. You harvest grain where you haven’t sown. You gather crops where you haven’t spread seed. 25 So I was afraid. And I hid my valuable coin in the ground. Here, you have what’s yours.’

26 “His master replied, ‘You evil and lazy servant! You knew that I harvest grain where I haven’t sown and that I gather crops where I haven’t spread seed? 27 In that case, you should have turned my money over to the bankers so that when I returned, you could give me what belonged to me with interest. 28 Therefore, take from him the valuable coin and give it to the one who has ten coins. 29 Those who have much will receive more, and they will have more than they need. But as for those who don’t have much, even the little bit they have will be taken away from them. 30 Now take the worthless servant and throw him outside into the darkness.’ “People there will be weeping and grinding their teeth.

Footnotes:

  1. Matthew 25:15 Or talantas (talents)

Common English Bible (CEB) Copyright © 2011 by Common English Bible

Matthew 25:14-30               The Message (MSG)     The Story About Investment

 14-18 “It’s also like a man going off on an extended trip. He called his servants together and delegated responsibilities. To one he gave five thousand dollars, to another two thousand, to a third one thousand, depending on their abilities. Then he left. Right off, the first servant went to work and doubled his master’s investment. The second did the same. But the man with the single thousand dug a hole and carefully buried his master’s money.

19-21 “After a long absence, the master of those three servants came back and settled up with them. The one given five thousand dollars showed him how he had doubled his investment. His master commended him: ‘Good work! You did your job well. From now on be my partner.’

22-23 “The servant with the two thousand showed how he also had doubled his master’s investment. His master commended him: ‘Good work! You did your job well. From now on be my partner.’

24-25 “The servant given one thousand said, ‘Master, I know you have high standards and hate careless ways, that you demand the best and make no allowances for error. I was afraid I might disappoint you, so I found a good hiding place and secured your money. Here it is, safe and sound down to the last cent.’

26-27 “The master was furious. ‘That’s a terrible way to live! It’s criminal to live cautiously like that! If you knew I was after the best, why did you do less than the least? The least you could have done would have been to invest the sum with the bankers, where at least I would have gotten a little interest.

28-30 “‘Take the thousand and give it to the one who risked the most. And get rid of this “play-it-safe” who won’t go out on a limb. Throw him out into utter darkness.’

The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

talentsMatthew 25:14-30

The man stood and watched the master of the house stride away. The master was off on a journey, and he had not said exactly when he would return. The servant clutched the coin tightly in his hand. He had other things to do this morning, and he was unsure about what he should do with this money. This was a lot of money. To earn a talent, you had to work fifteen years. Fifteen years. So the master must have had some confidence in his ability to take care of this talent. Finally, he tucked the coin in his pocket and went to do his chores.

Yet throughout the day, he checked constantly to make sure the talent was still there, because he was afraid he might lose it. Later, as he rounded the corner of the barn, he overheard two other slaves talking. The master had given one of them five talents. That servant was the highest ranking one on the farm. The master had given the other one two talents. The third servant was in awe. Five talents? That was more than most people could earn in a lifetime. You would have to work seventy-five years to earn such an amount of money.[1] Most people in his world didn’t live that long. He listened to the others discuss what they planned to do with the money the master had given them. As they walked away, he thought he heard them say they were going to do some investing. Maybe they could double their money. There were some risky ventures out there, but nothing ventured, nothing gained, right?

shovelThe third man shivered. He was a careful man—even frugal. He was not about to take risks with this money. He knew his master was a fair man, but the master brooked no nonsense from his servants. He ran a tight business operation and held them all accountable. No sir, he was not going to gamble this money away or risk losing it. If he did, the master would deal harshly with him when he returned. The servant took the coin out of his pocket, turned it over in his hand, watched the sun glint off its surface. Then, making a prudent decision, he walked over and picked up his shovel. He strode to a nearby tree and began to dig near one of the big roots.

The master has said goodbye. We do not know when he will return and say hello. In between the goodbye and hello, we must live our lives.

The Christians who heard this parable from the writer of Matthew’s gospel knew that Matthew was not talking about a human being who owned a farm. He was referring to Jesus as the master, one who had lived, died, ascended. One who would someday return. Yet the disciples had no clue when this might happen. When Jesus left them, they thought he would be back soon. Yet by the time Matthew’s gospel was written—probably between 80 and 90 CE—Jesus’ disciples had had to reconcile themselves to the fact that they did not know when he would return—or if he would. So how were they to live their lives in such ambiguity?

Jesus had had confidence in all of them. It seemed clear that Jesus had chosen each one for their different gifts that could be used for the building of God’s kingdom on earth. Yet some had not used those gifts well. Judas, for example, had used his talents poorly. The result was betrayal, Jesus’ death, and a close-knit group that was left fractured, grieving and scared. Now, as the remaining disciples came to terms with the truth that Jesus might not return in their lifetimes, they had to decide how to live. How to preach the good news that Jesus had taught them. Would they pull inward, depend on each other, and stay close to home? Would they go back to fishing, working in the tax office, farming, and remembering Jesus when they met in the market place or worshiped in their local synagogue? Would they go back to living their lives as they had before Jesus called them to follow him? Or would they move beyond safe, familiar boundaries and preach the gospel to all nations as he had commanded them?

Tea Candles Holy Wed There is one truth about seeing light in a dark place. Once you have seen light, you are never as satisfied with the dark. When the light of Christ shone into the lives of these ordinary human beings, their lives changed dramatically. Transformed by the love and witness of Jesus of Nazareth, the disciples did go into all the world. Tradition tells us that Thomas ended up in India. James journeyed to Spain. By the third century, the next wave of apostles had gone further—for example, St. Alban went to Britain and was martyred there. By the eighth century, St. Boniface had preached the gospel in what we know today as Germany.

The light of Christ spread far beyond the shores of the Galilee. This would not have happened if the original disciples had buried their gifts. It would not have happened if they had held tight the love and devotion they had for Jesus within their little group or if they had withdrawn in fear. Instead, while the master was away, they stopped living in fear and started living in faith. They stopped living in anxiety and started living in peace. They stopped withdrawing and started to expand, allowing their faith in the light of Christ to flow throughout the world. Just as the master in Jesus’ parable knew the character and abilities of his servants, and entrusted money accordingly, Jesus knew the character and abilities of those he left to live between his earthly goodbye and the divine hello at the end of time.

So what does it take for you and me to live into the abundance and grace of the gifts God has given us? One thing we might consider is that the master in Jesus’ parable did not entrust his money to his servants, then stay and micro-manage them. Instead, he went away. As one writer has noted, he left “distance and room needed for others to lead, grow, take chances, and flourish.”[2] I wonder if God does the same with us. God gives us gifts of love, of faithfulness, of leadership. God then gives us space and room to develop those gifts.

Do we bury our talents because we fear they are too small to make a real difference? Do we use our gifts frugally, limiting them to groups in which we feel comfortable? Do we sit back and wait for someone else to step forward, when perhaps we are the one God is expecting to step forward and lead? Do we expect someone else to feed us spiritually without taking responsibility for our own spiritual education and nourishment?

People in this parish have many gifts. In the past six months, new voices have joined the choirs. In the past four months, Dr. April Stace Vega, has joined this parish community. She is now working with a group of parishioners on a new focus and vision for spiritual formation of youth and children. In the past couple of months, a group of eight people has begun to work with Renewal Works, a project that included a survey for parishioners about spirituality. Soon, that group will make recommendations to the Vestry. Be advised, however, those recommendations will not get lived out solely by your rector and your vestry. These are ideas that will impact our church, our community, and we need you to step up.

All of us have gifts to offer. That gift could be to contribute a financial pledge. Some of you have the gifts to lead a Bible study or book study. Step up and offer your gift. You can help lead an “Episcopalian 101” class and help others learn what being an Episcopalian is all about. Don’t worry; you will have help. Some of you have gifts to be a Vestry member. If you are asked to run for Vestry, do not think you are incapable of helping to lead the church. Think about it, then be willing to serve on Vestry. Some of you could commit to helping plan an alternative Saturday evening service that welcomes people who shy away from traditional church.

You have gifts. So step up. Be counted. Invest the gifts God has given you. And if you wonder if I am talking to you, I am. Between goodbye and hello, live fully, in response to God’s deep, abiding love. Furthermore, do not ever underestimate the gifts God has given you. Never bury them in the ground. Instead, invest them wisely, with a heart of abundant love. Open your hands. Open your hearts. If you do, you will learn in amazing ways how you can serve God and your community, using the gifts that God has given you.

Who knows what astounding treasures we may find—treasures we never knew we had. Don’t bury them. Invest them—in God and in each other. Amen.

© The Rev. Dr. Sheila N. McJilton

[1] David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 4, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 311.

[2] Ibid., 311.

Picture of talents and picture of shovel from Google images.

Picture of tea candles taken by McJilton

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