Thanksgiving Propers                       Gospel:    Matthew 6:24-34

Preached on Nov. 22, 2015

This past Tuesday, I was restless, agitated and very anxious. Terrorist attacks in Paris had prompted an e-mail to my brother in Atlanta, just to make sure that he had not been traveling there now. He was, thankfully, stateside. The shut-down of Washington College in Chestertown concerned me—for the students, staff and faculty, and for our friend Darcy Williams, who is the priest in charge at Emmanuel Parish there. I walked out of the Admin Wing door on the 6th Street side, and spotted two Laurel City Police cars with lights flashing, as they had stopped someone. Not one car. Two. Several nights earlier, I had noticed that the streetlight across from my house had been out for two weeks—making me realize  just how dark that part of the street now was at night. Anxiety filled me, and made me jumpy.

I told Pat, and her response was, “Well, maybe you should pray.” This stopped me in my tracks, then I laughed and said, “Oh, THAT! Yeah, maybe that’s the thing I should do.” So I did pray, although I’m not sure that calmed me down much. But on Wednesday evening, I decided to make an apple-pear-cranberry crisp out of some fruit I had bought. As I was peeling apples and pears, I suddenly realized that I was praying for situations in the world, for the students in Chestertown, for Jacob Marberger’s safety, and for his parents, who must have been out of their minds with worry about their son’s welfare.

It occurred to me that doing a mundane task and praying while I was doing it was rather Benedictine in nature, and I was feeling much more centered as I did it. My mind moved from these situations to parishioners and friends who are ill. Then to family members I love. On and on. There may be no end to unrest and violence in the world, but it seems that there is also no end to God’s peace, God’s love, God’s comfort.

It is way too easy to get caught up in the anxiety and fear of this world—and that is amplified by the constant barrage of media. Yet the gospel today shows us that what we experience today is no different than what people experienced in Jesus’ time. However, it is important to note that although Matthew includes these words of Jesus within the Sermon on the Mount, Luke’s version makes it clear that Jesus is not talking to people in general, but specifically to his disciples. Disciples Jesus is sending out two by two, telling them not to take a staff—which would help protect them—to take no extra clothing, and to stop and stay with complete strangers who are hospitable.

These disciples are, understandably, concerned. Will they be safe from predators or thieves along the road? Will they have a place to sleep, out of the elements? Will they go hungry or will someone give them food? Furthermore, what if they are not able to heal people or what if some synagogue throws them out when they preach this Good News of God?

lilies of the fieldJesus reminds his disciples that all will be well. God is in charge. God will provide for them. In so many words, Jesus says, “Hey guys, take a deep breath. Stop. Sit down on this big rock in this beautiful field. Look around. See these beautiful birds in flight, birds of all colors and sizes? See these exquisite lilies, soon to be mowed down by someone threshing grain? Who created these creatures, this beauty? God did.”

“The birds of the air. . .are fed by God even though they neither fret nor plan, and the lilies of the field, gloriously and colorfully clothed. . .have never touched a needle and thread. If God takes care of the birds and the wild flowers, Jesus promises, then God will surely take care of us.”[1]

For the disciples and for you and me, this issue boils down to trust. Do we trust that God is with us, no matter what? No matter what? Perhaps we, like the disciples, need occasionally to be reminded to stop. To sit down. To take a deep, deep breath. To look—really look—at the things God has created.

One commentator on this scripture passage has noted that “the verbs look at the birds of the air and consider the lilies of the field are, in Greek, very strong verbs. They mean to suggest more than a casual glance; they invite us to study and to scrutinize the carefree world of nature. Jesus commands us to look, really look, at a world where God provides freely, and lavishly, a world where anxiety plays no part, where worry is not a reality.”[2]

A world where worry is not a reality. Really? For those of us who specialize in worry, that sounds laughable, doesn’t it? But we can be intentional about switching the tapes in our heads and bodies. Pat’s reminder to me on Tuesday to pray was helpful. So was peeling apples and pears. So was getting in my car and seeing the index card that is always there in plain sight: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”[3] It is good to stop, breathe, and ask myself, “Is this a situation I can change?” If the answer is yes—even if it is a small thing I can do—then I do it. For example, I texted Darcy in Chestertown to see if she was safe. Yes, she was. If the situation is not something I can change in any way—i.e. the situation in Parish—then I say, “Okay, God, you’ll have to be in charge of this one. Please send your angels to comfort people, to heal, to be your reconciling and loving presence in the midst of great fear and deep woundedness.

Of course it takes some intention to stop, to breathe, and to go through this prayer. Is this something I can do something about? If so, what? If not, let go. Let God. The very process of figuring out whether this is a thing I cannot change, or a thing I can change, is, in itself, a bit of wisdom. Slow down. Look. See in a new way, from a new perspective.

Jesus began these sayings in Matthew with the statement that we cannot serve two masters. We cannot serve God and wealth at the same time. You cannot give God a lot of time and energy if you are trying to stockpile money and fill your home with stuff. Jesus is trying to tell us that whatever we think is important is what defines us. What do we focus on? Getting more money? Finding a better job? Saving for college or retirement? Worrying whether we will be able to pay for heat this winter? Worrying. . .worrying. . .worrying. . .Or maybe we are just trying to stay afloat—just pay the bills on a timely manner. Yet at day’s end, did worry about any of this make one bit of difference? Probably not.

It is only if we hold earth’s treasures lightly, focusing instead of God’s provision and abundance, that we are truly free. That means we don’t focus on worry so much. Instead, we, trust that God will take care of us. God will provide. It might not look the way you had hoped, but God will provide.

Someday, my earthly body will be gone—and so will yours. I will be a memory, perhaps my name etched on a tombstone or a columbarium niche. My hope is that at the end of my life, when I take my last breath, I will have loved well, and been loved well. I believe that to be true—even now. I also hope and pray that in some small way, I will have made a positive difference—in some peoples’ lives, in the life of the parishes I have served, in the Church, and in the larger world. Will I have been faithful and trusting, able to leave my anxious self behind? Will I have, instead, been able to take in, and share, the peace, love and abundant provision of God who created me, God who sustains me, God who loves me beyond the boundaries of time?

My prayer, my unending prayer that cycles through and around and in me, is that the answer is yes. May it be so for you as well. Amen.

[1] Thomas G. Long, Matthew, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997), 75.

[2] Ibid, 75-76.

[3] Serenity Prayer

Ruth and Naomi BWNovember 8, 2015

Hebrew Scriptures Reading: Ruth 3:1-5; 4:13-17

NOTE: Because we so rarely get a reading from the book of Ruth on Sunday morning, AND because this passage is rather chopped up, I decided to completely re-tell this wonderful story as sermon.

Once upon a time, Elimelech, his wife Naomi and their two sons lived in Bethlehem in Judah. Then came a famine in the land. Bet-Lechem—House of Bread—had no more bread. So this refugee couple fled to a foreign country: Moab. A place of people the Israelites hated. While in Moab, the sons married. Elimelech died. Then both the sons died. Only the women were left.

They had lost the men in their lives. They had lost their social status. They had lost their economic security. How could they survive on the edges of society like this? Then Naomi heard that back home, in Bethlehem, the famine was over. Bread had returned to the House of Bread. Naomi hoped there might be some distant relative back home who might help them. But she knew that Ruth and Orpah, young Moabite women, would probably not be welcome.

The daughters-in-law began the journey with her. But at a certain point on the road, Naomi told both to return to their mother’s home. They were still young women. Marriage and children were still possible. For Naomi, the time of marriage, of fertility, of children, of status were all over. The best she could hope for was some kind distant relative to take her in, back in Bethlehem. Death had changed Naomi’s life. Suddenly, she was faced with change she did not ask for, change she did not plan for, change she did not like. Yet there it was: unwilled change.

The Sufi have a saying: “Willed change is not real. Only unwilled change is real.”[1] In her book on the story of Ruth, Sr. Joan Chittister expounds on this quote. She notes that “only unwilled change catapaults us into what we did not plan to do. Only unwilled change really matters to the molding of the soul, to the stretching of the self beyond the self, in other words . .Willed change is what I seek and shape. Unwilled change is what seeks and reshapes me.”[2]

In the biblical story, “unwilled change” forces not only Naomi, but Ruth and Orpah, who faced a big decision. They could return to their mother’s home, to comfort, to the possibility of another husband and children who would continue the circle of life in a home tribe. Orpah made a logical, socially correct, traditional decision. She turned to go back home. But Ruth? For Ruth, the world had shifted. For reasons we are not told, Ruth decided to cast her lot with her mother-in-law, Naomi. She chose to go and live in Bethlehem, “where race and religion [would] marginalize her forever. A follower of the tribal god Chemosh, she [would now profess] faith in the one God, Yahweh. A marriageable young woman, she [would opt] for independence with another woman rather than set about finding a man to care for her.”[3]

In the ancient world, Ruth’s choice was astounding, unusual and scary. Yet in every generation, there have been women—and men—whose growing consciousness of God and God’s intended order have disrupted, interrupted and transformed the world.

RuthAndNaomi 2Naomi and Ruth returned to Naomi’s homeland. After years of being a housewife— baking bread, cleaning a house—Ruth had to go to work. It was fall, the beginning of the barley harvest. Naomi told Ruth she could go out and follow the harvest reapers,because Hebrew law allowed the poor to glean the fields. Whatever grain the reapers left behind, the poor could gather and take home. It was the only way Ruth and Naomi would have bread to bake. The way the women could sustain themselves.

On that day, Ruth “happened to come to the part of the field owned by Boaz, who was of the family of Elimelech.”[4] Now Boaz was one of two kinsman of Naomi’s deceased husband. In ancient tradition, the nearest kinsman could buy the land that had belonged to the dead man, then take the widow of that man as his own wife, and have children on behalf of that kinsman. In this way, the family land and the family line could be preserved. The amazing thing in this part of the story is that not only did Ruth end up gleaning in Boaz’s field, but Boaz noticed her. Why?

Because by day’s end, this energetic, committed young woman had gleaned an entire basket—an ephah—of grain. That would have been equal to twenty nine U.S. pounds today. As one writer has noted, “The ration of food that a working man of the period would be given rarely exceeded two pounds a day.”[5] Ruth had gathered over two weeks’ worth of grain in one day! No wonder Boaz noticed her. Boaz had also learned, from the men in the field, just who Ruth was. They told him that she was the “Moabite maiden, who came back with Naomi.”[6] Naomi. Widow of Elimelech. Relative of Boaz.

Yet although Boaz was clearly taken with Ruth—he summoned her at lunchtime and shared his bread and wine with her—he still did not do the morally right thing. He did not offer to redeem Naomi—thereby taking Ruth into his home and providing for both women. Instead, he just told his men to drop more grain by the wayside, to provide more easily for Ruth.

That evening, when Ruth told Naomi that she had gleaned in the field of Boaz, Naomi was astounded. “Blessed be he by the LORD, whose kindness has not forsaken the living or the dead!”[7] Then she told Ruth that Boaz was a relative of theirs. It was obvious to Naomi that Boaz had treated Ruth well already. First, he had treated Ruth like he would have treated a Jewish woman, not as a Moabite or an outsider. Second, he did not ignore Ruth nor did he belittle her.

He just suggested that she work along with his women servants and not roam into other fields—because he knew that could be dangerous for her. Finally, Boaz actually empowered Ruth, when he told his men to drop extra grain for her to gather. [8]

Ruth in fieldsWith these providential developments, Naomi took matters into her own hands. She told Ruth to wash, to anoint herself with perfume, to put on her best clothing, and to go to the threshing floor that night. Once Boaz was content with good food and wine, he would lie down to sleep. Then Ruth was to “uncover his feet and lie down.” Naomi said, “He will tell you what to do.” You and I do not know exactly what happened that night, but we can very well read between those lines, can we not? Yet three other things were clear. First, Ruth had told Boaz, “Spread your [garment] over your maidservant, for you are next of kin.” In other words, Boaz, you have a responsibility to me, and you need to take that responsibility. Second, very early the next morning, before there was enough light to see, Boaz urged Ruth to leave the threshing house quickly. Ruth was not a woman of the night, and he did not want anyone to think that. Boaz was a respected town official, so he did not want anyone to think ill of him. Third, Ruth had confronted Boaz about his role as kinsman redeemer, and he promised he would take care of this issue. He said that another man was closer kin than he, therefore had a greater right.

The next day, he waited at the city gate for the other man. Boaz found out the other man did want the land that had belonged to Elimilech. However, he did not want Naomi or Ruth, and the women came along with the property deal. So that man gave up his kinsman rights. In public, Boaz said he would buy the field and the women. Boaz announced that he would marry Ruth, a widow and a foreigner. He did. Ruth was redeemed. More importantly for survival’s sake, so was Naomi.

Out of this union, Ruth gave birth to a son. Then in an act unparalleled in all of scripture, it was not the father who named the boy. It was the neighborhood women in Bethlehem. They named him Obed. Then Ruth handed her son—not to her husband Boaz—but to her Naomi. Obed’s son was named Jesse. Jesse had a lot of sons. The youngest son’s name was David. Out of the house and lineage of David came Jesus. Our kinsman redeemer. The redeemer of the world.

I wonder what would have happened if Ruth had opted for safety, for stability, for the comfort of tribe and home. She did not, so that story was never written—thanks be to God. Instead, Ruth had the courage and vision to push outside her boundaries, to venture into the unknown. Naomi had the wisdom, insight, and survival savvy to coach a younger woman. In a world where women had no voice, no rights and no security net without a male patriarch, these women took charge. Because they did, the world was changed.

You and I—both male and female—have the chance to be the Naomis and Boazes of the world today. Who will we take care of or protect? Who are the ones who live on the edges of our society, those who glean our fields of waste and want? I think of the ones who forage dumpsters for food thrown out by fast food chains. I think of the men and women who depend on Elizabeth House every evening for one hot meal a day. I think of the women who have fled abusive husbands with their children—who cram their belongings into, and live out of, small motel rooms, with no permanent address. I think of the young black men filling our prisons—those who have the reading ability of a third-grader, whose eyes haunt, whose hearts hold no hope for a better life.

I think of a New York Times Magazine article I read yesterday, entitled “The Displaced: An Introduction.” The headline read: “Nearly 60 million people are currently displaced from their homes by war and persecution—more than at any time since World War II. Half are children.”[9] Half are children. For the first time in its history, the New York Times offered a Virtual Reality App to download, to watch and hear three stories of child refugees.

Hana is a twelve year old Syrian refugee who has lived for three years in Lebanon. Instead of playing or going to school, she works in a field, picking cucumbers. She longs to go back to being a child. Oleg is an eleven year old Ukrainian. He now lives in the ruins of his village, which was bombed by separatists who fight on the Crimean peninsula.

sudan-slide-3T40-articleLargeChuol is a nine-year old South Sudanese boy. He watched as soldiers raped and killed young women, as they burned his father and grandfather alive in their family hut. He escaped with mother and grandmother, then got separated from his mother. Later, his grandmother went back to find relatives. Now Chuol is alone, a child who is no longer a child, who fights for survival in crocodile-infested swamps. He noted that being eaten by a crocodile was probably a slow death, but he preferred that to being killed by soldiers. Chuol, a child, had a dream. It was to become a doctor, and he still dreams of that—if he can live long enough. If he can survive the nightmare of tribal conflict and somehow find his way back to some semblance of a normal life.

Yesterday, I downloaded this new virtual reality app on my I-Phone, then watched. By swiping the screen with my finger, I could experience a 360 degree panoramic view of scenes in Lebanon, Ukraine and South Sudan. Suddenly I was standing there in a field beside Chuol. I heard UNICEF airplanes drone above. I watched as bundles of food dropped from the air. I was in this scene—one of the participants. I thought, “Oh. At least we can eat now.”  Then. . .“Maybe the planes will rescue us.”  Yet the planes did not land. We remained behind, standing and looking up, then we all ran quickly to get a bundle of food. Maybe we will live another day. Maybe we will get to go home soon. Maybe someone will come to help us.

Here is the edge of the field. Here are the gleaners. And we who sit in a comfortable, warm, safe home, watching the newest available, high technology app on our I-phones, are shoved beyond our comfort zones. Almost without warning, we stand in the midst of rubble and crocodile-infested swamps and fields alongside our young sisters and brothers.

Will we be their Naomi? Will we be their Boaz? The world awaits our answer.

© The Rev. Dr. Sheila N. McJilton

Picture of carving of Ruth & Naomi taken by McJilton at Virginia Seminary. This carving done by Peggy Parker, artist.

Other pictures accessed through Google images, except picture of Chuol in boat, accessed courtesy of New York Times, Nov. 8, 2015.

[1]Quote from Joan D. Chittister, The Story of Ruth: Twelve Moments in Every Woman’s Life, (Grand Rapids & Cambridge, UK: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2000), 18.

[2] Ibid., 18.

[3] Ibid., 25.

[4] Ruth 2:3.

[5] Robert L. Hubbard,Jr., The Book of Ruth (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988), 66.

[6] Ruth 2:6b.

[7][7] Ruth 2:29b.

[8] Idem, Chittister, The Story of Ruth,61.

[9] “The Displaced: An Introduction,” in the New York Times Sunday magazine, Sunday, November 8, 2015. Accessed through new app, nytvr.

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+ 


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