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It is just a piece of wood.

Something nondescript to be

Carved into things.

 

A cradle.

A table.

A cross.

 

Maybe Mary wondered

All those years ago

As she leaned over

That rough cradle.

Wondered why every time

She touched it,

Something burned

In her heart.

A question.

A nagging question.

A memory that hung

Elusive, just beyond her reach

Like a dream that disappears

As you awaken in the morning.

You know it was real, it’s that

You cannot catch that elusive

Wisp of memory.

 

Today in Jerusalem,

People jostle, mill around,

Then in silence,

They move to the edges

Of cobblestoned streets.

It is a holiday.

But as they watch

The piece of wood bump

Slowly

Painfully

Through narrow streets,

They do not feel joy.

No.

They feel uneasy.

A question burns in their hearts.

A nagging question

That is unanswered

 

Except by the bumps of

Rough wood on stones,

The groans of the one

Who bears a piece of wood

That was once

Nondescript

And now has been

Cut, planed, carved

Into an instrument

Of pain, torture, execution.

 

He drags this piece of wood

On raw, bleeding shoulders

Until he falls under its weight.

A soldier yells at a foreigner

To come and carry the cross.

He is a foreigner.

No power. No voice.

So he sighs and takes the weight

Onto himself.

 

Together, they manage.

The stranger bears a cross

He never asked to bear.

The half-dead prince stumbles

The last mile to

His own death.

 

It is not until the soldiers

Take the wood from the stranger

That he feels something

Burn in his heart.

A question.

A nagging question.

A memory that hangs

Like elusive dream at dawn.

 

When he straightens up,

And the soldiers push the prisoner

Towards the rough wood

One last time,

He turns to meet the piercing stare

Of a woman.

 

Her friends hold her up.

Her eyes speak more pain than

He ever wants to know.

Her eyes burn his soul

He knows that her arms

Have held the world.

 

On his last day, when

Simon draws his last ragged breath,

He will remember

That piercing stare.

That burning in his heart,

That nagging question.

 

Elusive memory

Will resolve in fine focus,

The picture finally complete.

 

Cradle.

Table.

Cross.

 

The instrument of death holds the pain

Of innocent children

Of mothers’ arms in the night

Of prisoners at the last.

The Mother of All Wood.

 

Some people hate pain

And run from it.

Others embrace its

Cold wild waves.

They welcome

The Mother of Death

As friend in one

Final

Cruciform

Answer.

Cross at end of Maundy Thursday

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

April 14, 2017

Care for Creation

“You exist more truly where you love than where you merely live.”  Bonaventure

It’s always interesting to me how things in life coincide at odd moments.

1. This week, I have been reading a compelling book: Care for Creation: A Franciscan Spirituality of the Earth. Although I’ve only read half of it, that is enough to recommend it. More on this reading in a moment.
2. On April 22, many people will celebrate Earth Day 2017 in various ways. (To learn more:http://www.earthday.org/)

3.  This Saturday is Annual Patuxent River Cleanup Day in Laurel. Local folks have a chance to do something real for the community where we live (and love), and if you’re a student, you can get some community service hours.

4. This morning, I went to More Than Java Cafe on Main Street in Laurel and parked on a nearby side street. As I got out of the car, I noticed what I often notice if I do my afternoon walks: litter.Lots of litter. (Picture of litter accessed from Google images.)  Later, someone reminded me that litter is usually trash deliberately thrown in the street or gutter. Rain or wind has blown trash out of receptacles waiting for pickup, or from public trashcans.That was a helpful reminder, because as I saw the mess, I thought, “Well, this isn’t a pretty sight if folks come to Main Street to shop or go to a coffee shop.”

5. Last Sunday, a parishioner asked me why we are using Styrofoam plates and bowls for coffee hour refreshments. I told him I didn’t know, but perhaps we should prevail on folks NOT to buy Styrofoam plates, bowls or cups any more. If our planet lasts a thousand more years, these will still be around, because Styrofoam does not disintegrate.

Back to Care for Creation. We’ve been asking this lately at St. Philip’s:

What does God have to do with care for creation? A lot. This book makes it clear that with the above comments, I am not just some “tree-hugger” (although I am okay  that title.) The creation around us is God’s creation. St. Francis recognized this more than just about any other human being has. In a real sense, creation–earth, sky, seas, animals and plants–speaks to us of God, and God speaks through these created things or beings. “Creation. . .means relationships between the human and non-human created order, the place of the human person within that order, and the response of the person to the created order in its relationship to God.”

An “environmental crisis” is a “religious crisis.” Why? Because we are intricately involved with earth for which God has called us to care. Rather than the traditional interpretation of human beings having “dominion” over all other created life forms, the original Hebrew should be translated as “to serve and preserve” these life forms. Simply put, you and I are stewards. We don’t own the earth. We have no business trashing her. In fact, because we are blessed with higher cognitive function (or I hope so), we have greater responsibility than the ants, or earthworms, or polar bears, or fields of crops.

Last week, I read in the newspaper that North Korea has carved out tunnels. It is believed that they are, or might be soon, testing nuclear missiles in such tunnels. I was horrified. What would be the consequences of such testing? Do people really believe that there are none, or do they not care? To put those toxins into soil, to dislodge earth. . .I shudder to think of earthquakes, or tsunamis, or other environmental disturbances that are possible–and we might never connect one with the other.

As we think about how we follow Jesus during this Lenten season, we watch trees and other plants flower and bloom. As we enjoy greening grass, spring sun and warmer temperatures, gets green, think about how you can deepen your relationship with the Creator by taking better care of resources. Recycle. Compost. Take your own thermal coffee mug to your favorite coffee shop. Pack your own lunch–in a re-usable container. Turn off power strips and use less electricity at home. Adjust your thermostat a few degrees to save energy. Whatever you do, remember that the earth in which we live is not ours. It’s just ours to tend for a very short while.

Nature is “a sacramental expression of God’s generous love.” Enjoy that love–and return it to the earth from which we came, the earth to which we will all return. “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

 

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

img_2845Yesterday morning, two St. Philip’s parishioners met me at the Laurel Marc Train Station to do “Ashes to Go.”  (Note: thanks to Susan H, who got our big sign there up on the platform!) Several years ago, I remember how bitterly cold and windy it was, and the way in which almost every person rushed past us to get on the train. Of course in that cold, they had sat in their cars until the last minute, then hurried across the parking lot, up the steps, and onto the train. A few people had come for ashes, but we knew most of them.

This year was different. It was cloudy, but warmer than usual. One of Susan’s friends, who lives nearby, came to join the three of us and to talk.  We probably had a dozen people come over and want ashes imposed. In fact, one woman practically ran, saying, “Oh good, you’re here. Your diocese hadn’t put this location on their website yet, and no one was at Union Station.” [Note: it was my fault we weren’t on that site—I had forgotten to use the link the diocese had given us.]

Another came up to me, smiling broadly and exclaiming, “Yes! I need this!”  Another woman hurried up, exclaiming, “I’m in a hurry, but I need a prayer!”  We laughed, I asked her name, and drew the sign of the cross in ashes, then did a prayer of blessing before she hastened to get on her train.

img_2846Later, with Susan H & Jim R having put our big sign in my trunk, I drove to More than Java Cafe on Main Street, hauled the sign back out and set up outside the cafe. I had fewer people here, but there were five St. Philippians. The guy who runs the Thrift Shop across the street, and a work colleague, came over for ashes and prayers Two women who work at Rainbow Florist (two doors away) also came to be prayed with. We had a lovely conversation. And the young woman who works in the cafe came outside for imposition of ashes as well.

This year, I added a prayer of blessing to the usual “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”  Why? An Ash Wednesday prayer of blessing is not in the Book of Common Prayer.

In this time of conflict and division in our world and country, many people have confessed to feeling uneasy and unsettled. In such a climate, perhaps people need reassurance and blessing in addition to being reminded of our mortality. So I asked each person their name, then called them by name, did the “Remember that you are dust. . .” sentence, then added a prayer. Then I handed them a little card I had made, which had the name of our parish, the Ash Wednesday service times, and the Sunday service times, plus a prayer for protection and peace.

Some people still averted their eyes and made a mad dash to the Marc train. When I got to More than Java Café, 9:45-10:30 was a quiet time on Main Street, so I did not have many “takers” there. That’s okay. Every encounter I had yesterday was a reminder that people are hungry to have positive encounters with another human being. Even the man who said, “I’m of another stripe,” then told me that he is Jewish, but doesn’t practice that faith–that he’s humanist first, then Jewish, was cordial, and we had a pleasant conversation.

Yesterday morning, the gift to me was the awareness that four of us stood on a train platform and talked to each other, yet at the same time, we were aware of strangers.  I believe that with every stranger with whom I prayed and whose forehead was etched with blessed ashes, that person knew a few moments of acknowledgement that s/he is a beloved child of God, of peace, and of agape love.

As we at St. Philip’s walk this Lenten journey together, with our “boots on the ground” on the way of Jesus, I pray that we will remember something. Remember that every person we encounter–no matter how much we think we know them–has struggles, pain, challenges and hopes that are deep, and that they will never tell us about. May we truly see each other. May we truly and deeply listen to each other. May we think about people and events through that question, “What’s God got to do with this?” and that the “this” for people is that at the center of each of us, we are hungry for God, and hungry for Christ-like encounters.

This week, look at people on the train, in the office, at the gym, in the conference room, and at coffee hour. Really see them–beyond the surface. Remember that we are all ashes and dust. But ultimately, we are all stardust and made in the image of God, the Creator of heaven and earth. Isn’t that amazing?

saltoftheearthJesus’ followers are finding that it is not easy to follow him. There are not many people in the early Church. Rome wields power freely and cares more about the empire than faith. These Jesus-followers are an “odd lot of fishermen, homemakers, tax collectors, and eventually, former Pharisees and assorted Greco-Romans”[1] These Christians have no church building. They are un-organized. They have no stated goals or vision statements. Yet this ragtag group of people have followed Jesus of Nazareth for three years. They remember what Jesus has taught them in this brief span of time.

Jesus uses ordinary things in the world to make points about God and God’s love in the world. In Matthew’s gospel, he has just sat on a hill and told a big crowd of people who is is blessed, and who is not. After Jesus concludes what we call the Beatitudes, he turns to his followers and says, “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

Thanks, Jesus. We’re going to be reviled and persecuted by people who will spread fake news about us. . .

Jesus then goes deeper as he teaches these people who follow him around Galilee. Who are they—what is their identity as Jesus-followers? If they follow Jesus, exactly what are they supposed to do to change the world? To teach them, Jesus uses ordinary things in the world around him. Here, he uses the ordinary, yet essential, elements of salt and light.

First, salt. In the ancient world, salt is an important preservative, highly prized, and used judiciously because it is expensive.  “Salt brightens and sharpens other flavors already present” in food.[2] In other words, salt is subtle, yet distinct. Whatever flavor a particular food has does not change dramatically. It’s just that salt, added at the right amount at the right time, “enlivens and enhances a meal’s other flavors. It brings them out. It makes them themselves, only more so.”[3]

light-of-the-world Continue Reading »

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Micah 6:1-8

Hear what the Lord says: Rise, plead your case before the mountains, and let the hills hear your voice. Hear, you mountains, the controversy of the Lord, and you enduring foundations of the earth; for the Lord has a controversy with his people, and he will contend with Israel. “O my people, what have I done to you? In what have I wearied you? Answer me! For I brought you up from the land of Egypt, and redeemed you from the house of slavery; and I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam. O my people, remember now what King Balak of Moab devised, what Balaam son of Beor answered him, and what happened from Shittim to Gilgal, that you may know the saving acts of the Lord.”

“With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?

Prayer: “May the words I speak, oh God, be yours, and only yours. Amen.”

There are times when being a preacher is very difficult. I have had some difficult times to preach, and today is one of those times.  Last night, I sat and watched Facebook Live videos of protesting crowds at JFK International Airport, where foreign nationals were detained. Separated from families. One mother separated from her child. People who—two days ago—would have gotten back to America safely. Now, because of an order signed by the new President, they have been detained, and thousands of people have shown up to chant, to hold signs, to protest.

I watched what was going on, and I wept.

This morning, I got up, poured a cup of coffee, sat down, and scanned the news online. Then I put my head in my hands. What would I say to you today? As a Christian pastor, what can I say? I am going to throw out what I will call a patchwork quilt of reflective thoughts, and I hope the Holy Spirit will take up her needle and thread these pieces into something that makes a difference to you today.

One piece of the quilt: yesterday, at the Diocese of Washington, we debated a rather controversial resolution. Bishop Mariann Edgar Budde had already addressed the recent controversy over the Washington National Cathedral hosting the prayer service for the new president. Bishop Budde had spoken in other places about this, including her saying that “in times of national division, the Episcopal Church is called to be a place where those who disagree can gather for prayer and learning and to work for the good of all.”[1]  What she said yesterday was that either the WNC is “a house of prayer for the nation” or it is not. As a leader in Washington, she will go to whatever table she is welcomed at, and she will do the same—offering the chance for reconciliation and listening. (Note: she also made it clear that she does not agree with many things the new president says or does, and that “there may come a time for civil disobedience.”)

The controversial resolution was about St. John’s Episcopal Church on Lafayette Square for hosting the prayer service before the Inauguration, with the evangelical pastor preaching. This pastor opposes GLBT persons, and has other viewpoints with which Episcopalians disagree—including the idea of a leader being divinely ordained.  However, the convention got caught up in quibbling over language of this resolution and proposed amendments. Thankfully, someone finally moved to table this resolution, effectively making it null and void. I must tell you that I would have voted against the resolution. Why? Not because I disagreed with its position. But every Episcopal priest does ministry under the authority of our bishops. If the Rev. Dr. Luis Leon invited someone to speak in his pulpit, I assume that he had the latitude to do that, under the authority of Bishop Budde. And I would not want anyone telling me how I could invite into this pulpit. So I respect my brother, I know he has good sense, and know that he had his reasons for doing this. I trust him.

But here is what I thought of yesterday: Here we are, quibbling over one word in a resolution. (Should we leave it in, or take it out, or change it?)  And I am sitting there thinking, “Really, people?  Really? No wonder the culture thinks the Church is out of touch. Good grief!”

What is relevant? As we sat at diocesan convention and argued about words in a piece of legislation, human beings’ lives were on the line in airports all over this country. From JFK International to Newark to Dulles to Chicago to San Francisco. . .people from seven different countries on the president’s list were detained and denied entrance to the United States.

There were real consequences. According to the BBC online this morning, and Fortune magazine,  Google has called all of its employees home who were traveling overseas.[2] They do not want all of their highly skilled people to get trapped outside the United States. An Iranian scientist, who lives in Switzerland, who was preparing to come to the United States to do a postdoctoral fellowship in Boston, had to return to Switzerland—not able to enter this country simply because she was born in Iran.[3]

How do we live our lives as faithful followers of Jesus? Where are we in all this chaos and upheaval?

A third image: Last week, I gave you all thirteen suggestions for ways to live out our faith in real ways, in real ways. Was that challenging? (I see heads nodding.) Especially that “pray every day for someone you dislike—or even despise. Yes, that was the hardest for me, too. It’s easy to go in and pay forward $5.00. But to pray for a human being whom you dislike, or do not respect? Tough.

Today, I have brought props with me. Last Sunday, if you were here, you know that I had a pair of Chucks, my Birkenstock sandals, and a Bible up here.Today, I have more.  I have a backpack. Birkenstocks. Hiking boots & socks.

It occurred to me that Birkenstocks are usually worn in warm weather, often when we are schlepping about the house, or on the beach, or doing leisurely type things. So maybe we have reached a time in history when following Jesus of Nazareth requires hardier footwear. Maybe it is time for hiking socks and hiking boots. Serious footwear. And for those of us—like me—with weak ankles, laces that lace up around the ankle. The kind of shoe that makes people know you are serious about walking.

I have also put some other things in this backpack. Here is a Bible. You need the Word of God to go with you when you walk the way of Jesus. Here is a Book of Common Prayer. Because this book is where we Episcopalians focus our worship. Some of the most beautiful prayers and language in the English language are in this book—and if you want to take one home and look through it for some prayers, go ahead.  The other thing you might want to take is something like this little devotional prayer book—it is one I give to our young people when they are confirmed. Or maybe a picture of someone you love—or maybe a picture of someone you despise—so you can pray for that person. Who knows?

Another piece of the quilt:  Last night and this morning, I had faces in front of me. I thought about some of our folks—including college students—who have come to the United States from other countries. Some have grandparents, aunts, uncles, who still live in other countries in the world. What if those folks were trapped in airports today, unable to enter this country? I thought about a family here whose son is a submariner. I thought about some of you who are military—perhaps to be deployed soon. Many people in this parish work for government agencies—Department of Justice, NASA, NOAA. You may work for companies who contract with government. Some of you work for agencies you cannot talk about. We have old and young, many colors, Democrats & Republicans (& Independents). So how does our Christian faith work for us, together?

Another piece: In the 1980’s, then-rector Jane Holmes Dixon and her husband did not agree about the Gulf War. Jane admitted this to the St. Philip’s congregation. She noted that she and Dixie were on opposing sides about the war. So were many people here. But what mattered?  Jane said—and I agree—that here is what matters. (I turn and point to the cross on the altar.)

THAT matters.  That cross. Our worship together.  Jesus Christ lived, died, and rose from the dead for us. We come together, regardless of our political viewpoints to worship that Christ.  We put aside our political affiliations, and we worship.

Another piece of this: the prophet Micah was right. That prophet lived in a time when people said, “Well, if sacrificing one ram is good, then how about a lot of rams?  If a little oil on the altar means something to God, then maybe a lot of oil is better. And if things get really bad, well, maybe I should think about sacrificing my firstborn.”  Micah says no. No. Micah says, “God does not care about your worship, people. God doesn’t care about your worship, your historic churches and buildings. Here is what God cares about. Do justice. Love kindness—or goodness. Walk humbly with God. Humility matters.

Micah lived according to the Two Great Commandments. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind. Love your neighbor as yourself. Then Jesus lived the same way. Loving God. Loving your neighbor.

Here is how we are to still live today, in the 21st century. We are to love God first. Then, we are to love our neighbor as ourselves. And if we don’t love ourselves, get some therapy, people! Because if we do not love ourselves, we live in a land of shadows. We project our stuff out onto other people, and blame them for our problems. This is part of the problem today.

So what? So what? I want you to keep doing your homework from last week. Keep praying for someone you dislike. Do an anonymous good deed. Pay something forward. Send a card to someone. Encourage your brothers and sisters. Put a little extra something in the collection plate.

And let’s hold each other accountable. I don’t care who you are, what political party you are with, what position you hold. Each of us must be held accountable–especially leaders.  I have to be held accountable. So every now and then, you can ask me, “Sheila, how are you doing on this walk with Jesus?”

We need boots on the ground for Jesus. Today. In real time, in real ways, with real people.

And here is the truth. The Being who matters most to me, the Being for whom I would die, is not affiliated with any earthly power or earthly political party.  That Being is God Almighty, Creator of Heaven and Earth. That Being is the only one I follow. That Holy One is the only one before whom I kneel in worship, this day and every day of my life. Amen.

[1] http://episcopaldigitalnetwork.com/ens/2017/01/12/episcopal-leaders-address-churchs-part-in-trumps-inauguration/

[2] http://fortune.com/2017/01/28/google-sundar-pichai-trump-immigration-order/

[3] https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2017/01/trumps-immigration-ban-is-already-harming-americas-scientistsand-its-science/514859/

Gospel Reading:    Matthew 4:12-23

hobbit-open-door-drawing

In J.RR. Tolkien’s novel The Hobbit, Gandalf the Wizard shows up at Bilbo Baggins’ hobbit hole, smoking his long pipe. Bilbo joins him for a smoke, and when he puffs a perfect smoke ring into the morning air, Gandalf comments,“Very pretty!. . .But I have no time to blow smoke-rings this morning. I am looking for someone to share in an adventure that I am arranging, and it’s very difficult to find anyone.”[1]

Bilbo responds, “I should think so—in these parts!  We are plain quiet folk and have no use for adventures. Nasty disturbing uncomfortable things! Make you late for dinner! I can’t think what anybody sees in them.”[2] Sticking a thumb behind one of his braces, he blows a larger smoke ring and ignores Gandalf, whom he has decided is not his sort, and hopes the wizard will go away.

Of course this is before he knows exactly who Gandalf is. But even when Gandalf tells him who he is, Bilbo is still reluctant to go on any adventure, wizard or no wizard. Yet if you have read the novel or watched the movie, you know that a tall, white-haired, bearded wizard challenges a small hobbit to leave behind his very comfortable life and have what will be the adventure of his life.

He sets out with a group of dwarves on a quest to confront the great dragon Smaug. Of course later, in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Bilbo’s nephew, Frodo, also embarks on a quest—his is to find a ring—the one ring that will rule them all. But back to Bilbo. Faced by Gandalf, Bilbo is “confronted with a call that will change [his life] completely.”[3]Bilbo Baggins is, of course, a fictional character. Yet he embodies the stuff of mythical characters on a quest.

In real life, you and I have several key examples, some of whom have lived in our lifetimes. One is Mahatma Gandhi. Another is the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. These are only two Continue Reading »

The Second Coming

falcon

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.

The darkness drops again but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

William Butler Yeats (1865-1939)

Photo accessed through Google images