Stones in water

Bearer of curse and blessing,
I left home to stumble into the desert.
Exhausted and empty,
I watch fierce sun set over silent stones.
Stars ascend towards midnight.
The wind moans through desert canyons,
And clouds drift across a full moon like shimmering angles.

Broken and empty, I come to you, O Lord God.
In a desert midnight,
There is no smell of blessed fields
No grain
No wine
No fatness of earth
No sweet dew of heaven.

Alone, I sleep on holy stones,
Under stars that blaze fierce and countless as dust.
The wind moans high above me, through desert canyons.
Clouds veil the moon.
Strong, shining faces of angels appear.
Lean down to earth.
Their glittering swords carve stones into steps to heaven.

Angels descend in silence to gaze into my face.
Angels ascend in silence to bear my deceit away.
Then in a shimmering, celestial dance
Of turning wings
Swirling wings
They sweep aside clouds.
I see a heavenly host as countless as dust.
I hear a heavenly host, their voices joined by joyous stars.
Glory to God in the highest. . .
And on earth. . .peace.

Their alleluias echoing high above desert canyons,
The Holy One descends from the gate of heaven
To stand beside my stone pillow.
To wrap my empty fears
In an eternal mantle of blessing.
To hallow the ground on which I sleep.

Michael veils the moon with his wings.
And the only light I see is God.

I left home, soul that raged with wild emptiness,
And in this desert wilderness,
Angels carve holy names for sleep.
They dance a path between me and You,
O Lord God.

You have found me, broken and empty,
On holy stones that ascend to the very gates of heaven.
And you have not cursed me.
In a desert midnight, I know
The smell of blessed fields
Fatness of earth
The sweet dew of heaven.

I will tell of You, O Lord God,
To laughing children who bless my tent,
To strong children who become tribes as countless as dust.
I will tell them of desert midnights filled with blazing stars,
Of fierce angels who carve holy stones
And dance with glittering swords among clouds,
Of hymns sung by joyous starts over Bethel
And over Bethlehem.

(c) The Rev. Dr. Sheila N. McJilton
Published in the Anglican Theological Review
Winter 2000, Vol 82, No. 1

Cross in Stone smMark 8:27-38

Simon Peter stands, stunned and speechless, on a dusty road in Caesarea Philippi. What on earth has just happened? He shakes his head, as if to clear it. He turns to see Jesus beckon a large group of people over to listen. Jesus’ voice rings out in the air: “If any want become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” A cross? Wait a minute. To take up a cross means you drag your own instrument of torture and death through the cobblestoned streets of Jerusalem. That means you are about to be executed, your body hung on display as an example to other political zealots. The crowd looks stunned too.

Jesus continues, “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.” Jesus continues to talk, and other disciples listen raptly. But Peter stands there, trying to understand what has happened. Where has this gone wrong?

Caesarea Phillipi caveJesus and the disciples are in Caesarea Philippi, “the center of worship of the emperor and the Greek god Pan.”[1] Everywhere the disciples look, they see grottos and shrines to Pan. The Roman Empire emperor considers himself a god to be worshipped. Rome imposes harsh taxes that force Jewish people to sell their land, then serve on it as serfs. Just as bad is the fact that their own Church people kowtow to Rome. The Jewish High Priest and hierarchy align themselves with the government. If the priests keep the people in line, Rome lets them live in the best Jerusalem neighborhoods. They walk on tiled floors, dress in expensive robes, and flash expensive rings. So as Jesus and the disciples walk amidst pagan grottos and shrines, all they see and hear reminds them of who they are: a little ragtag group of men and women living differently than most in this Goliath of the Roman Empire.

Yet every day, this counter-cultural rebellion grows larger, less quiet. Every time Jesus of Nazareth opens the ears of another deaf person, or restores sight to someone, or every time another leper is healed, word spreads like wildfire. Caiaphas, the high priest, has already sent several small groups of Pharisees to infiltrate the crowds that follow Jesus. Caiaphas smells trouble in this young man named Jesus. The last thing Caiaphas needs is trouble with Rome. Everybody just needs to get along, and life will be good. Yet life is not always good. Ordinary people suffer. They work long hours for a little food to put on their tables. They struggle with illness and disease. They resent powerful leaders who live like kings and queens while others sit on street corners and beg.

blackjesus“Who do people say that I am?” Jesus has asked the disciples. They tell him what they have heard in villages and on the road. Some think Jesus is the old prophet Elijah. Some think that Herod’s nemesis, John the Baptist, has returned from the dead. Some name other prophets. “But who do you say that I am?” Peter—always the first one to raise his hand in class—answers well. “You are the Messiah.” Yes. The Messiah. The Anointed one. The One whom they have looked for, longed for, waited for. The One who will lead them to overthrow the Roman government once and for all. Yet it seems that a political coup is not what this Nazarine messiah has in mind. Instead, he knows that suffering and cross-bearing is just ahead of him, waiting in Jerusalem. You don’t get very far in Rome’s estimation when you walk the way of justice, mercy and humility. If these men and women are serious—really serious—about following Jesus in the Way of God, they must be willing to pick up a cross too.

To deny oneself and follow Jesus down such a road is difficult to comprehend, even more difficult to do. Jesus openly predicts what lies ahead for him. “I will soon be in political trouble with the Church folks. The Church elders will make sure that I am turned over to Rome. I will suffer. I will drag my own crossbeam through the streets of Jerusalem. I will suffer. I will die.”

When Peter argues with Jesus, Jesus calls him Satan and declares, “You are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” No wonder Peter is stunned. One minute he gets it all right. The next minute, he gets it all wrong.The disciples have been following a man they hoped would overthrow Rome, then make the world right again—a world in which all will have enough and no one will have too much. Suddenly, Jesus has turned that idea upside down. This king in sandals says they have to deny themselves. Pick up a sign of death. Follow him.

Jesus-and-SimonWhat does that mean—to deny yourself and follow Jesus? One writer has noted this: “Self-denial is not primarily about squashing our desires or delaying gratification. Jesus calls us to separate ourselves from what defines us. A person in Jesus’ culture was defined by those to whom he belonged—usually household or kin. Jesus calls people to embrace new understandings of identity. Disciples join a community defined by association with Jesus. . .they enter a new family comprising all of Jesus’ followers. Self-denial is not self-annihilation, but complete redefinition.”[2]

What does “complete redefinition” mean to us? We live in the United States. No one in the government will turn you in and have you executed because you believe in Jesus as the Son of God. In some countries, they will—and do, every day. However, not here, in America. So you and I do not, literally, suffer in order to follow Jesus as Lord. Perhaps our context of privilege and comfort is, in itself, the challenge. Comfortable Christianity. We can settle in our pews on Sundays several times a month, or occasionally. We can admire—and maintain—our historic space and stained glass windows, say liturgical words, hear a short sermon, go to coffee hour and go home.

So what? What difference does our Sunday worship make in the rest of our week? Does Sunday morning worship completely redefine us? Does taking Holy Communion transform us in any way? If not, maybe we would be better off to go to Starbucks or Panera and read the Sunday paper. That is because Jesus still calls you and me to a new way of life. Jesus still says: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” Jesus says to love God with your heart, your mind, your soul—in other words, with all that you are and all that you have. Then love your neighbor the way you love yourself. As much as you love yourself.

If you think that is easy, think again. This Christian way of life is a challenge. It is uncomfortable. To be on the way with Jesus means we must re-define our lives. How do we do that? One way we do that is in community, and in order to be in community, we have to show up here, together. You can’t do community all by yourself. Not one of us has all the answers about faith. Yet together, we can ask questions, reflect together, share insights and challenge each other, worship together.

Candles lit for othersAnother way we re-define our lives is to find a way to grow in relationship with the living Christ. How does that happen? If you want to follow Jesus, you must learn more about him. It’s the same way as we make friends. You can’t get to know someone unless you begin conversations, talk to that person, get to know him or her more deeply. The same is true with your relationship with Jesus Christ. And to that, there are many books on prayer or reading scripture, many versions of the Bible, lots of on-line resources, to which you can turn.

Try this: beginning tomorrow, stop for a few minutes either when you get up or when you get ready for bed. Just top and breathe deeply. Read a few verses of scripture. Think about your day and thank God for something. And if you thought that “attitude of gratitude” started with Oprah, it did not. This attitude of gratitude, this being with God for a few minutes will begin to change you. Just a few minutes to focus on God and what God wants of you. A few minutes to talk to Jesus, in your own way. You can do that–really, you can. And it is not hard to find words. As writer Anne Lamott says, there are only three essential prayers: Help. Thanks. Wow.[3] Trust me, God can work with that kind of beginning.

Jesus called his disciples with simple words: Follow me. Come and see. Pick up your cross and follow me. Yet Jesus knew that those simple words of invitation would change people’s lives, and mostly not in comfortable ways. Jesus does not call us to be comfortable. Jesus calls us to walk in real life, in real time, in real places, yet to walk in that way differently.

Syrian internally displaced people walk in the Atme camp, along the Turkish border in the northwestern Syrian province of Idlib, on March 19, 2013. The conflict in Syria between rebel forces and pro-government troops has killed at least 70,000 people, and forced more than one million Syrians to seek refuge abroad. AFP PHOTO/BULENT KILIC (Photo credit should read BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images)

Syrian internally displaced people walk in the Atme camp, along the Turkish border in the northwestern Syrian province of Idlib, on March 19, 2013. The conflict in Syria between rebel forces and pro-government troops has killed at least 70,000 people, and forced more than one million Syrians to seek refuge abroad. AFP PHOTO/BULENT KILIC (Photo credit should read BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images)

What would Jesus do in today’s world? I believe that Jesus would stand for justice, over and against rich Wall Street executives who fatten their own pensions while their workers make minimum wages, or less. Jesus would stand for mercy—he would be waiting with food, water and clothing, waiting for Syrian refugees who run for their lives across corn fields, carrying their children. Jesus would stand for humility at political gatherings where politicians puff out their chests and humiliate other human beings in order to further their own ambitions. Jesus would act differently. Jesus would live differently. So if we are going to bear his name, he asks us to act and live differently too. “If any want become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

What might that look like today, for you, as you sit here this morning? Are you willing to live differently, to be different, to follow Jesus on the Way? Whatever that looks like, know that you won’t be walking alone. Look around. You will see that there are others of us on that way, too. Amen.

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

[1] Karoline Lewis, “Location Matters,” from website Dear Working Preacher, accessed at http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=3681.

[2] Matt Skinner, “Commentary on Mark 8:27-38,” at http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1383, Accessed on Sept. 12, 2015.

[3] Anne Lamott, Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers, (New York: Riverhead Books, part of the Penguin Group, 2012.)

Picture of Celtic cross in baptismal font taken by McJilton at Abbey on Isle of Iona.

Picture of votive candles taken by McJilton at Abbey on Isle of Iona, Scotland.

Artwork “Simon helps Jesus carry the cross” on www.audreyanastasi.com. Accessed through Google images.

bilbo with pipe            In.J.R.R. Tolkien’s book (and movie) The Hobbit, Gandalf shows up one morning at Bilbo Baggins’ hobbit home. Bilbo wishes Gandalf a “good morning,” invites Gandalf to smoke a pipe of tobacco with him and begins to show off his gift of blowing perfect smoke rings. Gandalf is  impressed. However, even as he admires Bilbo’s art, he says, “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.”
“‘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,’ said our Mr. Baggins, and stuck one thumb behind his braces, and blew out another even bigger smoke-ring.”[1]
Bilbo           Bilbo is not the least bit interested in expanding his world to include adventures far beyond the beautiful Shire in which he lives. But the old wizard has other ideas. So within 48 hours of this morning encounter, Bilbo Baggins’ life has been turned upside down by a dozen dwarves, who quite unexpectedly show up at his door the next evening. Bilbo’s life will never be the same. As he sits, bewildered, at his own supper table, he is about to embark on the greatest adventure of his life.
In this Sunday’s gospel[2], Jesus himself has some unexpected adventures when he leaves Galilee and goes into the Gentile area of Syro-Phoenicia. Jesus is trying to escape the crowds, to get some rest. But what happens is an encounter with a foreign woman that shifts even Jesus’ perspective and focus of his ministry.
To sum this up, Jesus’ ministry expands, and a stranger changes his mind. Lest you think this is an odd thing for the Son of God to do, we must remember that Jesus is fully divine AND fully human. The human part  had to be just like you and me–otherwise, all would have been in vain. in other words, Jesus had to experience humanity in all its fullness–its ups, its downs, its ins and outs, its pain and challenges, its joys and comforts–if he was to be the fullest example of God for us.

Hobbit Open Door drawing          This Sunday, we will reflect together on what it means for God to open us, like Bilbo Baggins opened his “perfectly round door like a porthole, painted green, with a shiny yellow brass knob in the exact middle”[3] to find new adventures. He would find, in months to come, that what Galadriel, the Fairy Queen would later tell Bilbo’s nephew Frodo was true: “Even the smallest person can change the course of the future.”

How might you and I change the course of the future with our belief in Jesus the Christ? I invite you to come to worship this Sunday–yes, on this Labor Day weekend–and think about these things with me.

Faithfully, Sheila+

[1] J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit, (New York: Ballantine Books, 1937, © restored 1996 by the Estate of J.R.R. Tolkien), 4.

[2] Mark 7:24-37

[3] Ibid., 1.

All pictures accessed through Google images

As shoes for your feet, put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace.” (Ephesians 6:15)

roman soldier with shieldThe sound of warriors’ boots tramp over Rome’s cobblestoned roads. The sight of warriors in their boots, their glistening armor, their swords, their huge shields reminds everyone in a Roman city that the emperor rules. If there is to be order and culture, if business and commerce are to thrive, then individuals do not matter. Only the community matters. Whatever one does—for good or for ill—makes a difference to the corporate whole. This includes religion as well as politics. The emperor is in charge of both. In fact, if you are a Roman citizen, you are expected to pay obeisance to the emperor as an imperial deity. Failure to do so is interpreted as harm to the corporate whole.[1]

In the last part of the first century, the apostle Paul—or a devout disciple of his—sends an encyclical letter to Christian communities all over Asia Minor. One of these letters arrives in the ancient city of Ephesus, a major coastal city of commerce that is “second in importance and size only to Rome.”[2] Christians are in the religious minority, because Christianity is illegal until 313. It is highly probable that Christians living in Ephesus are “taken to worship the emperor at the newly constructed temple of [the emperor] Domitian to test their allegiance.”[3] What a difficult time it is to be a Christian!

Daily, you are confronted with signs of a totalitarian, oppressive political regime in which the emperor considers himself to be a god. Daily, soldiers march in the streets, guard the borders, stand on bridges—all decked out in full uniform. A belt “holds up the toga so the soldier can move unencumbered by cloth. . . The breastplate covers the core of the body [for protection]. The Roman shield is a defense against flaming arrows. It is leather, wetted against incoming fire, large enough to cover the one who [carries] it and one-third of the person beside him.[4]

How do you talk the talk and walk the walk of Jesus the Christ in such a world? Yet one might well argue that twenty-first century Christians do not fare much better than our brothers and sisters in the first.

Syria-Christians-A_3115028cChristianity is not illegal in the United States, but in some countries, it is. Daily, political regimes punish and persecute Christians for their belief in Jesus. According to an organization Open Doors, extreme Christian persecution means that people are killed, property destroyed, or threats made against them—in countries like North Korea, Somalia, Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Sudan, just to name a few.[5] In this country, we Christians are free to practice our faith. Yet the Christian examples highlighted in the press do not send non-Christians streaming through our doors. Practicing, faithful Christians are in a cultural minority. We contend against bad press, poor theological understandings and education, those who have been battered or injured by the Church, those who see us as hypocrites, those who think us laughable, and mostly, by people who simply don’t care.

None of this sounds like good news, does it? So where is the good news in today’s epistle reading? Where is good news in the world in which you and I live?

blackjesusThe good news is that putting on shoes to follow Jesus Christ gives meaning to a person’s life. In the early Church, people who say no to evil forces and yes to following Jesus see things in a new way. They feel joy and richness. They know that appearances are not everything. Power is not what it seems to be, and on a mega-level, evil has not won the battle. The life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus has tipped that balance. Jesus has brought the kind of life that no earthly power can subdue. The kind of life that no cosmic power can subdue.

The kind of love Jesus has brought to the world is love that heals, strengthens, sets free. It turns the powers of the world upside down so that no one has too much, yet all have enough. No one goes to bed hungry. Everyone has a place to live. All enjoy dignity and human rights—regardless of color, nationality, economic status, gender or sexuality. This kind of world is one in which community matters, yet it matters in a different sense than a totalitarian regime.

For two thousand years, community in Christ is one in which we have gathered in unity and diversity. We come to pray together. We come to hear holy words of scripture that nourish, support, encourage, and challenge us to walk the way Jesus walked. Most of all, our community is shaped by Eucharist—thanksgiving. Together, we take into ourselves the bread of God. Yet we do not eat blessed bread for our own solace and comfort. We have remembered our Lord and celebrated Eucharist so that we get strength–strength to put the kind of shoes on our feet that help us proclaim the gospel of peace. We go out into the world to tell people in that world that God loves them.

To paraphrase Mother Theresa, God has no face but yours and mine. God has no hands but yours and mine. God has no feet but yours and mine. We have the choice of wearing the tramping boots of warriors or putting on our feet the shoes of peace in this world.

In his book Wishful Thinking, author Frederick Buechner writes this: “If you want to know who you really are as distinct from who you like to think you are, keep an eye on where your feet take you.”[6]  Keep an eye on where your feet take you.

­­­In the past couple of weeks, the feet of twelve pilgrims from the Diocese of Washington have gone south to follow the path of the Civil Rights Movement for racial justice in Alabama. In 1965, a young white Episcopal seminarian Jonathan Myrick Daniels saved the life of a young African American teenager. Ruby Sales lived that day. Jonathan Myrick Daniels died. He is now remembered for the truth that his feet walked the way of peace and justice fifty years ago. Our Canon Paula Clark went on this pilgrimage two weeks ago. She tells of an encounter the group had, just outside of Haynesville, Alabama. Over forty people, of different races, walked into a Stuckey’s Restaurant.

confederate flag t shirtPaula writes this: “I was met at the entrance of Stuckey’s by a t-shirt emblazoned with the Confederate Battle Flag. The shirt was prominently displayed at the door, so it could not be missed, and read, ‘If This Shirt Offends You, You Need A History Lesson.’ As an African American, I could not help reading the t-shirt out loud. To my dismay, the Stuckey’s cashier, flanked with actual Confederate battle flags on the counter, glared and nodded at me. In that moment, I knew that I and all the pilgrims of African descent were not welcome. So, the whole group, all 40+ pilgrims, about-faced and kept our money in our pockets.”[7]

Today, I tell you that these Christian pilgrims walked the way of justice, mercy and humility. They put on the kind of shoes that made them ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. They walked. They prayed. They showed Jesus’ love as they remembered the names of people who have loved Jesus enough, who have loved their brothers and sisters enough to die. They did not fight in a physical realm. They fought in a spiritual realm—and in an economic one, just as others have in the fight for civil rights. Sometimes, when you put on your Jesus shoes, your heart and mind see and hear Truth. Your feet turn to leave a place of injustice. Your hands keep your money in your pockets.

You know that while the forces of evil are great, you also know that the forces of God, of good, of justice, mercy and truth are far greater. The good has already won, even when it does not look like that yet.

feet-walkingIt really does not matter what kind of shoes we wear: combat boots, work boots, Doc Martens, baseball cleats, Birkenstocks, Skechers, dress shoes or slippers. We can follow Jesus in any of those. We can follow Jesus into any place in this world to take the gospel of peace. So tomorrow morning, when you put your shoes on, remember this: “As shoes for your feet, put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace.” Then with your Jesus shoes on, do the work God has given you to do. Talk the talk of Jesus. Walk the walk of Jesus. God always goes with you.

I would like to close with a quote from the Talmud: “Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly NOW. Love mercy NOW. Walk humbly NOW. You are not obligated to complete the work but neither are you free to abandon it.”[8] Amen.

© The Rev. Dr. Sheila N. McJilton

[1] See Footnote #1 in Sarah Henrich’s Commentary on Ephesians 6:10-20 at http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2600.

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ephesus

[3] David L.Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, Editors, Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 4, (Knoxville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 374 & 376.

[4] Melinda Quivik, Commentary on Ephesians 6:10-20 at http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1380.

[5] From https://www.opendoorsusa.org/christian-persecution/world-watch-list/

[6] Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC, New York: Harper & Row, 1973, 27.

[7] http://www.edow.org/article/jonathan-daniels-pilgrims-encouraged-to-keep-going/

[8] Quote from the Talmud.

For many years, my spiritual disciplines have included daily morning Bible reading, prayer, and journaling.  As I have noted before, I love following Forward Day by Day, not always liking the particular writer, but liking very much the prayers in this little booklet, and the fact that the Daily Office Readings for both Year One and Two are listed at the bottom of each page–the Morning Psalms before the * (asterisk) and the Evening Psalms after the *.

This past Monday was “The Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary,” which means that we remembered the visit Mary made to her cousin Elizabeth when both were pregnant–Elizabeth with John (the Baptist) and Mary with Jesus.

Sometimes the oddest things strike me while I am reading scripture. The gospel reading was the “predictable” Magnificat in Luke (Luke 1:39-57.)

But the Old Testament reading was 1 Samuel 2:1-10.  Now in case you did not know this, this passage is “the Song of Hannah.”  Hannah is unable to have children. So on a trip to the Temple, she prays and weeps bitterly. The prophet Samuel sees her praying–her lips moving in silent prayer–and he accuses her of being drunk.  No, she is not drunk. She is distressed because she is BARREN–a situation which puts her on the edges of that ancient society. If you are dependent upon children to make sure the people of God continue, and to care for you in your old age, you are not welcome social company. In other words, in that culture, if you are barren, there must be something wrong with you. You must have sinned!

hannahHannah prays to the Lord, and promises God that if God will grant her a son, she will “loan him” to the Lord as long as he lives. In other words, once the child is weaned, he would go to Jerusalem to God’s Temple and serve under the priest’s care and direction. In fact, SAMUEL, the child’s name, literally means (in Hebrew), “name of God.”

In Hannah’s prayer (which is 1 Samuel 2:1-10 if you would care to look this up), she says “The Lord makes poor and makes rich; he brings low, he also exalts. he raises up the poor from the dust; he lifts the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with princes and inherit a seat of honor. For the pillars of the earth are the LORD’S, and on them he has set the world.” If you think you might have seen some of these words before, you are right. “The Song of Hannah” is an ancient poem, from which “the Magnificat” of Mary was later composed. 

OTcosmosYou probably knew about Ken Follett’s novel Pillars of the Earth. But did you realize that it was a biblical reference? Of course the thought of God resting the earth on pillars is now laughable, with what we know about the earth, the galaxy and science. But in ancient times, the sky was thought to be a (literal) dome above a flat earth, which support was. . .pillars.  Scripture has its own idiosyncrasies and elements of the context/time in which it was written. Yet I find it fascinating that human beings love good, rich poetry, and sometimes go back and “borrow” phrases and words for yet more good, rich poetry for their own time. So perhaps Ken Follett read this passage before he wrote his novel. Go read the two pieces of scripture I have referenced, and then look up the novel. Frankly, it has been some time since I read Follett’s novel, so I think I will do the same.

I wonder who are the pillars of the earth. Might the pillars be the love of God that sustains us? Comforts us? Challenges us? Nurtures us? Heals us? Are the pillars of the earth the poor, the ones who have no voice in our society, the ones who sleep in parks, in homeless shelters, on the streets of cities, the ones who sit lonely in assisted living places? If the pillars of the earth are the least likely ones to find in the halls of power, woe be to us if we depend on the empire for strength and support.

Just food for thought. . .

Faithfully, Sheila+ 

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


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