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The One Who Sees

Clothespins in blizzard.jpgOn Saturday, you could not see much.  In the Washington-Baltimore area, we had snow. And more snow. And more snow. It snowed steadily from Friday afternoon until about 10:00 on Saturday evening at my house.  At times, when I looked out, all I could see was whirling snow, and as I peered out of the window of my front door, I thought–more than once–how grateful I was to have a warm, snug house, with plenty of food and hot chocolate at hand.  It was okay to watch–as long as I was safe and warm inside. My biggest concern was whether the power stayed on–which it did. A first-world problem, you might say, and you would be right.

This morning, I was doing my usual early morning devotions. Genesis 16 has the story of Abram, Sarai and Hagar. Sarai realizes that she cannot have children, which is a sign of shame and embarrassment in her society. However, legally, any children borne of her slave-girl will belong to Sarai. No doubt Abram and Sarai had bought Hagar back from their life in Egypt. So now, without asking Hagar’s permission, Sarai gives Hagar to Abram, who “went in to Hagar, and she conceived. . .”

Far from her home, far from her family, a woman whose skin is probably darker than that of her owners, marries a man she has not chosen (nor would she, in that culture, even back home), and whether she wants a child or not, she is having one. But this leads to even more issues, one being jealousy. Now it is clear that Hagar can have children for Abram, so maybe he will prefer her to Sarai–even though scripture lets us know that Sarai is beautiful enough that Abram was nervous when they were in Egypt–to the degree that he lied to Pharoah and said she was his sister, not his wife. Yet human beings have been broken from the time of the Garden, and so this continues in this story–the broken-ness.

Sarai is mean to Hagar, but Abram will not intervene. In desperation, the pregnant slave-woman runs away.

Who finds Hagar? Who sees her? Sarai has not seen her as a human being, nor has Abram. She is property, pure and simple. A vessel for children whom she will never call her own. The one who sees Hagar is a messenger from God. The angel tells Hagar to go back to Abram and Sarai, that the child she will bear will be the beginning of many generations, and that his name is to be Ishmael.

Very quickly, Hagar realizes that this is no ordinary conversation. She understands with Whom she is having this desert conversation. “So she names the LORD who spoke to her. ‘You are El-roi;’ for she said, ‘Have I really seen God and remained alive. . .?'”

El-roi.  The God of seeing.  This is the first woman in the Hebrew scriptures (after Eve) to whom God speaks directly. In fact, Hagar is the first woman to name God. She sees. She understands. She gets it. She names the God who speaks to her, the God she encounters.

I have thought about this amazing woman off and on all day long today. She gets very little credit. Yet she was a stranger in a foreign land. Alone. Without any rights at all. Her very existence dependent upon people who were obviously not always kind to her. Yet she saw the one God sent to her. She named God. She obeyed God. In her faithfulness lay the lives and loves of generations to come. Today, I give thanks for all the women who are in her situation. I ask God for the opportunity to SEE–to really see–and to understand what or who it is that I am seeing.

Thank you, Hagar. Thank you for your sight. You are blessed among women.

Feast of the Epiphany

star-of-bethlehem“They offered him gifts, gold, frankincense and myrrh. And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way.” (Matthew 2:12)

 

 

 

If you have looked for the Light and then you think you see it,
and then you pack everything you have and travel for a very long time, 
then finally, finally, finally, you find that light
for which you have been longing. . . 

If you stumble into that Light’s round, warm beams, you may not be sure,
but what you do know is that your knees weaken
and you stagger and fall and kneel
and then a peace you have never known
floods your soul with light and warmth.

Of course you go home by another way.
The old way will never do now, will it?

(c) Sheila N. McJilton 01/06/15

Sermon for Second Sunday after Christmas   Luke 2:41-52

003-young-jesus-templeAs she walked along the dusty road, all Mary could think of was “What in the world are we going to do with Jesus?” The boy knew she was angry with him. This time, he had pushed his limits further than he ever had before. This time, he had moved too far out of her protective circle than he should have. So he kept his distance from his mother. He scuffed along the edge of the road, kicking stones, looking out at the horizon, deep in thought. They all said little to each other. Joseph was always a quiet man, so his silence was not unusual. But the usual easy conversation between Jesus and his mother had vanished, and the younger ones looked at each other for cues. They weren’t used to this stony wall of silence, either.

Jesus had never been like the other children in the village. But then Mary’s firstborn had not had the usual beginnings. It is true, her memories had faded a bit. Over the years, practical life had pushed aside the memories. Every day, she had to bake bread. She went to the market in Nazareth. She haggled about prices of olives, dates, a little meat, oil for the lamps. As Joseph and the boys worked in the shop on carpentry jobs for the building project in nearby Sepphoris, she and her daughters tended a couple of scrawny goats, worried over a few grapevines, swept the dirt floors. With a growing family, Mary was busy. With all of King Herod’s building projects going on in the next town, Joseph and his sons were busy as well.

Sometimes at night, after the children were asleep, Mary would stand in the doorway of their little home and look up at the night stars. She would remember that one bright star shining on the night that Jesus had been born. She would remember the amazed faces of those scruffy shepherds as they looked at her newborn son. Sometimes, she thought about that first time she took Jesus to the Temple. That old man, Simeon, had taken her baby in his arms and blessed him. But some of his prophetic words still sat uneasily with her:  “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”[1]

Now, that phrase comes back, unbidden, to Mary as she strides along the dusty road. “A sword will pierce your own soul too.”  She glances over at her eldest, who avoids her gaze. Jesus knows that it is his fault that they are way behind schedule. The usual five-day journey from Jerusalem to Nazareth has become a ten-day one, because Mary and Joseph did not miss him until that first night, when they all set up camp. Then they had to go back into Jerusalem to find him. That took another day. Then it was three days before they found him.

Mary realizes that a sword has pierced her heart more than once during Jesus’s twelve years. There was the visit of a group of magi from Persia, who brought amazing, expensive gifts to her tiny son. Then, someone warned them that Herod was furious. He had ordered those magi to come back to see him; instead, they had taken another road back home. In his temper tantrum, Herod had ordered all baby boys aged two or younger to be killed. So one evening, Mary and Joseph frantically packed their belongings. As soon as it was dark enough, they fled, guided by moon and starlight, to become refugees in Egypt for a few years.

But that was many years ago. Life has been pretty ordinary for years. Oh, Jesus has that faraway look to his eyes a lot of the time. He is obviously the most intelligent of her children. Occasionally, a neighbor makes a casual remark that reminds Mary that her firstborn does not really look like anyone else in hers or Joseph’s families. She always ignores the implied slight, but she notices it. And of all her children, Jesus pays closer attention to things and people. He never misses a chance to drop a coin in a beggar’s cup. He always sits up straighter and pays close attention when the rabbi begins instruction in the synagogue. In fact, now that she thinks about it, Jesus slipped away from them several times during that Passover week. She had thought he was out playing with the other boys; now she wonders if he had found his way to the Temple, to wander through its courtyards and find some elders deep in discussion and argument about the Torah.  She wonders, because when she and Joseph finally found Jesus the day before, he seemed completely comfortable. He was perfectly at home with the scribes and Pharisees—not just listening, but actively participating. Just as amazing, it was obvious that these elders had made room for him, and in the midst of their scholarly conversation, “Jesus was fully engaged in the discussion, in the study, in the life of the community of faith.”[2]

What in the world are we going to do with Jesus? 

Jesus’ family were likely mystified by him—his detachment from them, his love of theological conversations that were way beyond those of a carpenter’s son, his restless heart that was evident even as he was obedient on most occasions. Yet in Luke’s gospel, it is clear that Jesus’ questions, his searching, even his wisdom at an early age, were shaped and grounded firmly within a faith tradition. Mary and Joseph were faithful and active, observant in their Jewish rituals and traditions. It seems clear they went regularly to synagogue and taught their children fundamentals of the faith. Each year, they made the five-day pilgrimage, on foot, to the annual celebration of Passover in Jerusalem. Luke shows us that Jesus has grown up in a family that was committed to God. Deeply rooted in their faith tradition.  So perhaps Mary and Joseph should not have been so surprised to find their eldest son standing amidst Temple scribes, asking cogent, Socratic questions. Amazing them with his understanding and answers to their questions.  No doubt they had somehow missed the fact that their son had learned much from them, and their examples.

As parents and grandparents–even as friends–we can understand the quandary in which Mary and Joseph found themselves. We are usually focused on the everyday type events in our lives and the lives of our families. We lose sight of the bigger picture. And in our own world, it is easy to get caught up in focus on the negative: the violence in our world, the safety of our youth, what they are looking at online and with whom are they texting. Yet as parents or grandparents or godparents or people who are part of the Christian faith community “tribe,” we might read today’s Gospel and see what is underneath it. That is to say, there is an assumption that a firm foundation of faith has already been laid for this twelve year old Jesus.

Mary and Joseph had taught Jesus his prayers. He read and learned scripture. They all went regularly to worship at the local synagogue. In other words, Jesus’ Jewish faith was as close to him as the air he breathed. So by the time his parents found him in the Temple, in the midst of a theological conversation with his elders, Jesus already knew enough about his faith tradition to question it, to argue about it, to speak with authority about it.

How do you and I do that in today’s world? What in the world are WE going to do with Jesus? It is easy to get caught up in the demands of everyday life.  Our world is complex, we are busy, and although we mean well, time vanishes before we know it. We know it’s important to learn about our Christian faith, yet we’re not always so good at knowing what that looks like on Monday or Tuesday or Friday.

The preacher contends that the first step is to want to know more, to want to ask questions—even if we think our questions are dumb (which they are not.)  If we do, we are already on the right path. We, in this community of faith, are Episcopalians. Anglicans, Christians. It is important that we learn the fundamentals of our faith—and, if we have children, to teach them the same fundamentals of faith that Jesus of Nazareth was taught. How?

We are three days into a New Year. No doubt many of you have made some New Year’s resolutions. Yet today, instead of making some resolutions that we all know we’ll break by the end of this month, I suggest that we make some goals. I invite you to set some goals for yourself or your family. For example, set a goal of coming to worship every Sunday for four weeks in a row. Set a goal to bring your children to Sunday School every Sunday for four weeks in a row. Set a goal of praying a prayer at least one time every day. You don’t know how to pray? Okay, that’s an easy one. See the book in front of you in the pew? The one with the cross on the front of it? That is called The Book of Common Prayer. If you need to take one home, take one home. No, really.

bookCommonPrayer.pngTurn to Page 810 in that book, and you’ll find a Table of Contents for prayers. The prayers actually begin on page 814. We are Episcopalians. Anglicans. We don’t make stuff up. In that prayerbook, you will find prayers to pray with your children before bedtime or before meals. You will find prayers for every possible occasion: from birth of a child to prayers for the sick, prayers for guidance of children, prayers for family life. Prayers for men and women in the Armed Forces, prayers for our national life, prayers for the dying. You will even find Compline (p. 139), and every night, before bed, if you pray this short office, you will be joining millions of other Christians around the world—monks, nuns and others—especially the Benedictines, from whom we got this office—saying prayers.

Here is what you need to build your faith. Prayer. And since our prayerbook is full of scripture. (even though it is not always identified) you’ll get some of that too.

Here is what you do about Jesus. You learn about how he lived his life, in scripture, in prayer, in our tradition. Then you live your life the same way. You teach your children and grandchildren and godchildren how to live that life too. So at least one time every day, pray a prayer out of this Book of Common Prayer—alone, or at the dinner table, or with your children at bedtime. Come to worship. Come to fellowship, to coffee hour, in this community. And learn with others.

What in the world are YOU going to do with Jesus?  Let’s help each other figure that out, as we walk on this spiritual journey together. Amen.

© The Rev. Dr. Sheila N. McJilton

[1] Luke 2: 34-35

[2] Kathy Beach-Verhey, in Feasting on the Gospels: Luke, Vol. 1, Chapters 1-11, Cynthia A. Jarvis & E. Elizabeth Johnson, Editors, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014), 60.

Pictures of Jesus in temple as a boy and 1979 Book of Common Prayer accessed through Google images

Welcome to . . .2016

Butterfly on Fruit SmWe are going to bring in the New Year quietly, just the way we like to do. As I think about this past year, the biggest thing I feel is gratitude. So thankful for deep friendships, for some warrior women who have faced cancer with courage and grace, for my expanding family, for the absolutely amazing joy I got out of seeing Star Wars this week (okay, call me crazy, I don’t care. . .), and for another few minutes of sheer and utter joy when I watched Aretha Franklin sing “You make me feel like a natural woman” and got to see Carole King’s face of stunned disbelief, then her own sheer joy, and to see Pres. Obama weep as he listened. Life is full of sacred moments. My own journey is still being written, and there are many sacred moments to be lived. I know that the next year will be graced with new adventures and some surprises. I bless all of you, with the cup with which you have blessed me. Drink deeply of blessing. Be kind, children, to each other. We are all we have. And look for those sacred moments and those moments, however fleeting, of deep and utter joy.

Privilege and Pedicures

IMG_1502-2This afternoon, I have been reminded that in this country, all are not free–for various reasons. The young Asian woman (I know her home country but will not say what it is) giving me a good pedicure and foot massage said yes to my question of whether the salon is closed on Christmas. But open every other day of the year. “We get no benefits,” she said. “If we don’t have a customer all day long, we earn nothing. No joy. There is no joy.” She has 3 children, ages 13-15 months. In that moment, I was keenly aware of my privilege, of the coincidence of being born to parents who were American middle-class people who believed a good education was paramount, & who worked hard to ensure that all 3 of their children have college degrees. Tonight, I gave God thanks for the privileges I have enjoyed, and tipped the young woman very generously. May she know some joy in her hard life.

A Magnificat for Today

In God’s world–perfect, free world where the sun shines and gentle breezes whisper–

the young and the old and all in between look at me and call me blessed, for they know I Am.

The Lord has done amazing things for me.

holy, holy, holy Lord. God of power and might. . .

God is merciful.

God is holy.

God is mighty.

Those who think they are powerful and perfect run, scatter to hide.

Those with power and influence turn to find no one following them.

The halls of human power echo like empty caverns.

But. . .

The hungry stream through wide open doors to collect boxes filled with meat and vegetables and soup and cereal.

The homeless file in for a hot supper and games and a cot with real sheets and blankets and shelter that is warm and safe.

The refugees who have survived the winds and waters are finally pulled ashore by strong, sure hands.

Here is a blanket.

Here is a doctor.

Here is food.

Here is safety and refuge at last.

Eat.

Drink.

You are here and we have been waiting for you.

It is good to know your name.

In the name of

God who is merciful,

God who is holy,

God who is mighty,

God who is love,

We, all God’s children,

Welcome you

Home.

 

(c) The Rev. Dr. Sheila N. McJilton

20 Dec, 2015

Advent I

Readings:  Jeremiah 33:14-16    Psalm 25:1-10    1 Thessalonians 3:9-13  Luke 21:25-36

Signs in the sun, the moon and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations. Confusion caused by the roaring of the sea and waves. People who faint from fear and foreboding. The powers of the heavens shaken. Welcome to the season of Advent!

Many of us are still working on Thanksgiving feast leftovers. E-mail inboxes are still being flooded with Black Friday offers. Cyber Monday is tomorrow. The malls are packed and bustling. Salvation Army ringers are out in full force, and radio stations assault our senses with an endless cycle of Christmas carols.Advent? What happened to Advent?

While the secular world is merrily jingle-belling itself to the odd juxtaposition of Santa Claus and the baby Jesus in the manger, we Christians hear, instead, odd scriptures which herald our new liturgical Church year. The prophet Jeremiah writes, “The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel. . .” In his first letter to the Thessalonian Christians, the apostle Paul encourages them to “increase and abound in love for one another. . .” so that they may be “blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.”  Luke continues the theme of “what is yet to come” with an apocalyptic vision of signs of the end times.

Signs in nature. Distress among nations. Confusion and fear and foreboding about what is to come. As with all things scriptural, we need a bit of context to make any sense of this morning’s gospel.

In the Gospel two weeks ago, Jesus and his disciples are wandering around on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. The disciples comment on the grandeur of the Temple, its stones, its generous offerings. Jesus’ reply to these observations is this: “The days will come when there shall not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.”[1]  Jesus then predicts that nations will rise against nation. There will be famines, earthquakes and pestilence. The disciples will suffer persecution, rejection and death at Roman hands—all because they profess the name of Jesus.

We must remember that by the year 40 CE, Jesus had been crucified. Mark’s gospel was not written down until twenty years after that. The gospel of Luke was written in the mid-eighties of the first century of the Common Era. In the year 70 CE, the Jewish Zealot sect decided to rebel against Rome. Titus and his Roman troops allowed Jewish people to enter Jerusalem for Passover, then barred the gates. Within six months, Rome had set the Temple on fire and completely destroyed the city of Jerusalem.  Death and destruction lay in the rubble of those stones, once so magnificent. The Jewish people had lost forever the greatest symbol of their faith—the Temple—and it has never been re-built to this day.

In the wake of such destruction, poverty, disease and despair were the key words of the day. Yet Luke wants to encourage his people. He reminds the early Christians that no matter how bad things get, “your redemption is drawing near.” What does Luke mean by that phrase? The first generation of Christians really did believe that the Lord would return in their lifetimes. The apostle Paul had been the first to reassure the Christians that the Lord would return, so they must continue to hope, to love each other and live in holy ways—so that they would be ready. We must keep in mind that Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians is the earliest book in the New Testament, written sometime in the 50s—some thirty years before Luke’s gospel was penned. Both Paul and Luke wanted their Christian communities to continue to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ, no matter what the secular world situation looked like. Yes, there were wars and rumors of wars. That has always been the case, no matter the era. Yes, there was disease and disasters. Always. Yes, there was, and would always be, poverty and refugees who flee from persecution and corrupt governments. In fact, Jesus’ parents had done that themselves, fleeing Judea from King Herod when Jesus was a toddler.

So regardless of when humans have lived, there have always been reasons to despair and wring hands and wonder whether the End Times are upon us. So how does God come to the human race in such crazy times? How is God ever able to break into human time and transform hearts and lives? In Luke’s community, the memories that were still fresh were of God in the very person of Jesus. Jesus had, literally, walked among some of those who wrote down the sayings and stories of Jesus of Nazareth. While Very few of eye witnesses remained by the mid-eighties, they had already passed down precious information. They knew, first-hand, of the life-changing and transforming power that Jesus had had on them. They knew that contrary to the world’s beliefs, life could come out of death. Resurrection of any thing and all things was possible. Joy in the midst of grief was possible. Hope in the midst of rubble was possible. People whose lives had been dramatically changed by Jesus now told others. No matter what was going on in the world, they proclaimed God’s love, God’s hope, God’s new life that had been born out of the depths of death and persecution.

The fact that you and I continue to gather every week as faithful Christians is, in itself, a continuing and living witness to this Truth. Every week, we come to a holy Table. We remember what Christ has said and done. In that holy remembrance, it is as if he is still, literally, among us.Because he is—in the blessed bread and wine. We take the bread and wine—Christ himself—into us. Thus, we are changed, transformed, into his body in the world in which we live.

Our own world today does not look any calmer than that of the first century. In the Thursday Washington Post, I read an article entitled “The Great Thaw.” Mt. Grinnell, in Montana’s northern Rockies, features a beautiful—and accessible—glacier. However, this glacier is rapidly melting—losing one-tenth of its mass in one year. If you want to see it, you’d better get there in the next couple of years, because scientists predict it will have totally disappeared in fifteen years.[2]

On another front, Parisians of all ages have been shaken up by the recent terrorist attacks. Some continue their daily routines. Others cannot bear to do that yet. In this country, racism is, sadly, still very much alive and well. Every day seems to bring forth a new tragedy, another senseless reminder of our country’s divisions. Tensions in the Mideast continue. A reminder of this came this week as I followed the Facebook posts of a young clergy colleague who’s been visiting the Holy Land with a group from the Diocese of Massachusetts. He posted yesterday that the group had visited St. George’s Monastery in Jericho, then traveled to the Dead Sea, but had been asked “not to take photos at either destination.” When you are in Israel and cautioned this way, it is for political reasons and your safety. Not a happy reminder.

So where is God in all this tumult, fear, death, destruction? God is here. Alive, well, full of hope. How do we know this? Throughout the centuries, God’s people have thrived and proclaimed the good news of God. Life in the midst of death. Every time we celebrate someone’s life in a memorial service—as we did here yesterday—we proclaim the ultimate truth that life triumphs over death. Just because we don’t see that at times does not make it untrue. It is true. Furthermore, there are many signs of God’s life, love, hope and joy that break into our world in so many ways.

In the past two weeks, this preacher has seen and heard many signs of God’s grace, hope and life. Saturday before last, I saw real signs of God’s love, God’s hospitality and God’s radical welcome as women and men of St. Philip’s welcomed both friends and strangers at the Holly Days Bazaar. Everywhere I turned, there was life, color, and happy sounds of God’s people. Little ones were welcomed as were big ones.

This past Thursday, God’s life and love blossomed in amazing ways, once again, at the St. Philip’s Community Thanksgiving Dinner. For weeks, a devoted team of God’s people, led by Deb Fitzer and Debbie Dusterwald, had prepared for that dinner. In the office, Danielle designed an efficient spread-sheet for volunteers and people who wanted meals delivered. Every time someone called, I heard welcome in her voice as she talked to total strangers. Children designed and colored beautiful placemats to brighten up the tables and to welcome our guests. On Thursday, Scott Aker and his kitchen crew worked together like a well-oiled machine, serving about one meal every thirty seconds for three hours. In the dining room, I watched Joe  and William Westlake roll forks, knives and spoons into napkins, to get ready for our guests. Krisa and Lucas Arzayus showed up, as did others, to be official greeters of our guests.

So many folks involved in the seating, the serving, the cleaning up, preparing for the next group, driving meals to shut-ins. On and on. Too many lights of Christ to mention by name. But they were here. You were here. The risen Christ was here. You ask how God breaks into our lives. This is how God breaks into our lives. As the saint Teresa of Avila put it, Christ has no body but ours. Christ has no hands but ours. Christ has no feet but ours.

We must live and move and have our very beings in our daily lives in such clear ways that people will know the love of Christ. When we practice this love, we bring God into the world—not in some future time, but in real time and real ways, today. You and I bring Christ to life. In that Truth lives hope, healing, and love. Out of that Truth, may God’s Holy Name be praised—now and at the end of time. Amen.

© The Rev. Dr. Sheila N. McJilton

[1] Luke 21:6.

[2] Joby Warrick, “The Great Thaw: America’s glaciers could vanish within decades,” in The Washington Post, Thursday, November 26, 2015. Accessed online at www.washingtonpost.com.

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