Archive for February, 2013

Jesus and the Sequester

“There isn’t a crisis atmosphere in Washington.” Ezra Klein in “WonkTalk: Will America  even notice the sequester?” The Washington Post on Feb. 26, 2013 

It is a rainy, windy night in late February and my heart is heavy.  In fact, my heart has been heavy for several days. That mood was not improved by watching a video clip tonight on the Washington Post’s website, with the above quote and subsequent comments by a Washington Post (self-confessed) wonk. Well, Mr. Klein, perhaps there isn’t a crisis atmosphere where you live and work. Perhaps there isn’t a crisis atmosphere on Capitol Hill (hard to believe, given Capitol Hill’s love of adrenaline brought on by every cliff-hanging crisis). However, the atmosphere is different in some real people’s homes right now.

I am rector of an Episcopal parish in Laurel, MD. Many of the folks whose faces I see on Sunday mornings—faithful Christians who find a pew, kneel, pray, sing, and enjoy conversations at coffee hour—many of these real people are worried right now. Yes, Mr. Klein, they are worried about the Sequester.  I know their names, I hug and tease their children and teenagers, I listen to their stories. Not all their stories, of course. But a parish priest hears many stories (some I wish I did not have to hear, but that’s the burden of a listening heart.)

My parishioners work in a variety of jobs and careers in the D.C. area. Most are well-educated and I venture to say that at least in some fields, they far outrank me in intelligence.  I do not know the details about some of their occupations (and don’t need to). But what I do know is that many of them are now genuinely concerned, even scared. They work for the federal government and if the Sequester goes through, they stand to lose 20% of their income.  One day a week, one or both adults in the household will have to stay home, unpaid.  If you are self-employed, or you work in the private sector, you may not understand this fear. Yet perhaps you can, on your own level.

The last time I checked out prices for eggs, butter, peanut butter and milk, I picked up a carton of eggs, was thankful I had a coupon for butter, and shook my head as I wondered how in the world people with families are making it right now.  Then I filled my gas tank—always doing that on Thursday, when you get five cents a gallon “off” the regular price—and if you’re lucky, you’ve spent enough money on eggs, butter and milk at the grocery store to “save” an extra ten or twenty or thirty cents.

So it’s a tough economic climate right now, and whether you work for the government, for someone else, or for yourself, you know that. Now, on top of all  this, we now have a Sequester looming, and no one seems to be very clear about its real future implications.

I find myself thinking about the biblical story about Jesus asleep in the boat on the Sea of Galilee. He and his disciples are crossing from one side to the other; he lies down and goes to sleep. A fierce, sudden storm comes up and before long, the disciples are scared to death. They awaken Jesus, who chides them for their fear. Then he calms the storm.

Jesus never seems to live in fear. He lives in the center of himself, a place that is deep, quiet, sure. He seems clear who he is, and to Whom he is connected. No fear. He just is. He is totally present. When he sleeps—even in a storm—he sleeps.  When he goes to a dinner party, he seems to get totally involved with the wine-drinking and bread-breaking—in fact, he can even make some good wine out of clear water to add to the merriment!  When he has conversations with everyday folks, he listens—really listens. He says, more than once, “Do not fear.”  Jesus reminds us that God knows when the sparrow falls, God has named everything, God clothes the beautiful lilies of the field.  If we live our lives in the center, where Jesus does, perhaps we will not fear.  Do not worry about tomorrow. Today’s worries are enough. Well, yes, there is that.

Yet I am left with a heavy heart.  People I care about are worried about what may happen. Perhaps it won’t. Perhaps it is another Capitol Hill tempest in the proverbial teapot. Yet my vocation as a priest and pastor calls me to be with my people in their sorrows, fears, concerns, joys, in  their conversations about God and where their lives of faith connect with their daily lives. Where is God on the Metro? Where is God in the research lab or at their computers? Where is God in their struggles with elderly parents or teenagers, or in their courageous battles against cancer? Where is God in a dark night of the soul? Where is God in the middle of a rainy, windy night when you wonder if your struggle to make ends meet is about to get even more difficult?

I don’t always know where God is in any of these situations. Sometimes God is maddeningly silent. Sometimes God seems to be hiding way too well to be found. Yet I believe—I give my heart to—in the love of God. I fiercely hold onto the hope that the boat we are all in will weather the storm. I am not Jesus. I do not have the power to speak to the storm and make the waters calm in a moment.  But I can hold on with them. I can stay in the boat with the others and try to comfort them. It seems so small a gesture. Yet I will trust that God is in this too.

© The Rev. Sheila N. McJilton

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Lenten Disciplines

Many people in my parish have a discipline of physical exercise. Some work out. Some walk treadmills or ride stationery bikes or use the elliptical. Some bike or walk outside. Some do yoga or swim. Some even train and run half-marathons. However, regardless of the discipline, all who do these things will probably agree that in order to achieve particular fitness goals, you must 1) set goals, 2) “show up” and 3) have an ordered discipline or practice in order to achieve the goals you’ve set.

The spiritual life is no different than a physical fitness regimen. In this season of Lent, many of us have set spiritual goals–either to do some fasting, or to be more mindful of what we eat, to eliminate fast food or sugar or alcohol from our diets, to do a book study, to pray more regularly, etc. Whatever you have chosen, you have likely realized, only a week from Ash Wednesday, how challenging a particular practice can be! We have spiritual muscles, just as we have physical muscles. Yet we forget that. We often believe that we can just make a decision to keep a Lenten spiritual discipline, then when we hit a snag (or slip), we realize that our spiritual muscles are really out of shape. While spiritual muscles don’t get sore in the same way that physical muscles do when we first begin a fitness regimen, our struggles remind us that we have much work to do before the discipline becomes more ingrained in us.

This Lent, I decided not only to read the Marcus Borg book Speaking Christian but to re-read Brian McLaren’s book from last Lent: Finding Our Way Again: The Return of the Ancient Practices. McLaren’s book has reminded me about different kinds of spiritual practices and how challenging they can be–yet how important it is to attend to them as Christians. In the beginning of the book, McLaren writes of introducing a well-known speaker and his question to the audience: “Why are books on Buddhism so popular, and not books on Christianity?” When a stunned McLaren turned the question back to the speaker, Dr. Senge’s response was: “I think it’s because Buddhism presents itself as a way of life, and Christianity presents itself as a system of belief.”

McLaren then explores what it is like for Christians to practice our faith as a way of life rather than as a system of belief, adopting ancient practices like pilgrimage, fasting, holy meal, fixed hour prayer, tithing, Sabbath and liturgical seasons.

If you have not yet explored a Lenten discipline, it is not too late. Consider how you might limber up, and exercise, your own spiritual muscles. Perhaps it is as simple as being intentional about prayer before meals, prayer with your children at bedtime, taking 15 minutes of quiet every morning or evening. Many of our parishioners have found the rich resource of praying Compline every night before bedtime. That is in our Book of Common Prayer. Even when we don’t practice perfectly, the important part is to practice. Over time, our disciplines can become more of our lives, and can shape and form us in some wonderful ways.

NOTE: If you would like to use Lent to get to know some saints, you should get in on LENT MADNESS. Every day during Lent, two saints in the Church are featured, with biographical info. Every day, you can vote for your choice. The final winner will get “the golden halo.” Go to http://www.lentmadness.org/ and check it out!

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Ashes to Go

Ash Wednesday 2013

Ashes to Go1 smRecently, I began to consider seriously the idea of participating in “Ashes to Go”–something that has become a national (ecumenical) movement that began with an ecumenical clergy group in St. Louis, Missouri. (Yes, there is a website: www.ashestogo.org.)  I threw the question out on Facebook for consideration. Why would you take something out of its liturgical context into a secular environment? The responses were fascinating, and truth be told, I had already 90% decided that I would do this on Ash Wednesday–my own theological reflection being that I could justify it if it meant we were just taking the presence of Christ and the Church into the world as a visible symbol.

So with the help of two particular parishioners (thanks, Susan and Doug!), I ordered two laminated posters, carefully poured some ashes into a little plastic container, and crafted a tri-fold brochure about St. Philip’s in case anyone wanted some reading material on the train. I invited parishioners to join me at the Laurel Marc train station between 6:30 and 7:30 a.m. this morning.

Dressed warmly (layers!), we gathered on the train platform and were joined soon by a photographer sent from the local paper.

For over an hour, we stood, chatted, and watched people arriving to get on the trains bound for Baltimore or Washington, DC. I had wondered how people would respond to our presence with a large signboard and a group of church folks (including a woman wearing a clergy collar!) Most people hurried by. It turns out that lots of folks sit in their warm cars until the last possible moment, then hurry up the steps to the platform within a few minutes of the approaching train.

Many averted eyes. Some were plugged into their I-Phones. Some caught our eyes and said “good morning” or nodded in response to our cheerful “good morning.” One woman, as she walked by, said, “That’s a nice idea,” but when I asked, “Do you want ashes?”, she replied, “No thank you” and kept going. Another man said he was Roman Catholic and said “I would like ashes but I’m Catholic. Do you think I can get them?” I said, “Of course you can.” So he came close, I asked his name, then said a prayer for him and made the sign of the cross with ashes on his forehead.

Not too many people came over for ashes. In one sense, I was disappointed. Yet as I stood there, I prayed for people who work on the trains. I prayed for those who would come and go this day to work on the trains. Surely all of those who hurried from their cars have some challenges in their lives–just as those in our little group who gathered to show God’s love in the world. I prayed for my parishioners who had gotten up early to join me on that train platform. I prayed for those who will gather in our sacred spaces later today at Ash Wednesday services, in what might be called a more liturgical context.

I was thinking, as I prayed, that God does not call me or anyone else to be anything other than faithful. It is not my responsibility to “save” anyone (whatever that means to different folks–and that’s another topic for discussion another day.) It is not my responsibility to coerce anyone to receive ashes at 7:00 on a weekday morning. I am just called to be a faithful Christian. That sometimes means that I have the privilege and honor of presiding at God’s Table in a historic worship space.That sometimes means I roll out of bed at 5:15 a.m., dress in warm layers, take my travel mug of hot tea and go stand on a train platform. Holding a little plastic container with dark ashes in it, with hands that are getting colder by the moment is a liturgical act, after all.

Since last summer at General Convention in Indianapolis, I have thought often about what our Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori said. She said that we have to stop asking “What would Jesus do?” and instead, go and DO what Jesus DID.  During his life, what Jesus did was to go and be with all kinds of people–even when they ignored him, or averted their eyes, or hurried past, hoping he would not speak.

He did speak. He spoke with his life. On this Ash Wednesday, as people got on trains, sat down and then looked out the windows at our little faithful group gathered on the platform, I pray that our presence somehow spoke of the love and faithfulness of Jesus the Christ.

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church-of-holy-sepulcher-wall-crosses-c-RomKri-jsA number of years ago, on a journey to the Holy Land, I visited the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. As I descended a long stone staircase, I looked up. On either side, hundreds of tiny crosses were etched into the stone walls. Sometimes many crosses were clustered in one small area. In some places, there were only two or three. When I asked our guide, she said these crosses had been carved into stone by early Christians, sent on pilgrimage to the Holy Land from far-flung countries. Their villages had saved money to send them to the holy places about which they had heard. So when the pilgrim reached this holy place in the heart of the HolyCity, he or she etched crosses in the stone to represent each person in his or her village back home. In this way, all were here—not just the one.

All of us are pilgrims in one way or another, on journeys of all kinds. The people of God can see our journeys told in biblical stories—journeys full of wanderings through rocky mountains, parched deserts, mountain-top experiences, frustration in the midst of life, conflict and divisions within families. You and I wander, explore, sometimes stumble in our own pilgrimages. So it seems appropriate to consider the season of Lent as a pilgrimage—a time to stop and reflect. A time to question whether we have stumbled down a wrong path, acted unfairly, injured another, disappointed God. What can we do to repent—to turn our life around? To go in another direction?

The season of Lent is the most penitential season of our Church year. Lent begins on Ash Wednesday—this Wednesday—  and ends on Easter Sunday. It lasts forty days and nights, not counting Sundays, the last of which is the Sunday of the Passion, or Palm Sunday. The final week of Lent is Holy Week—the most sacred week of the year. Lent has always been a time of discipline and preparation. In the very early Church, “Lent was the time of preparation for the Easter baptism of converts to the faith. Persons who were to receive the sacrament of Baptism. . . were expected to fast and prepare during these weeks [of Lent.]”[1] These Christian converts were baptized, then they received their first communion at the Easter Vigil, the evening before Easter Sunday.

For practicing Christians, Lent was a time of discipline and devotional acts. Thousands of pilgrims began journeys then that ended in Jerusalem during Holy Week. These pilgrimages, extra disciplines and fasting were all done to commemorate the final days of Jesus’ passion and resurrection. As many of these shrines and holy places still exist today, especially in Jerusalem,

contemporary pilgrims are able to re-trace the steps of the ancients and share in the understanding in our journeys. Both understand that neither the outward journey nor the inward one have just a beginning and an end. As one writer has noted, “Pilgrimage is never a dash to a destination. The divine encounter can happen anywhere—and everywhere—along the way. . .again and again. . .the physical journey we [are] tracing [parallels] the inward journey every believer makes.”[2]

HolyLentLent has four major themes. The first is baptism. In the early Church, only adults were baptized and only at the Easter Vigil. (Baptism of infants and children did not become a custom until the Middle Ages.) During the forty days of Lent, candidates for baptism underwent vigorous instruction about the Christian faith. They publicly acknowledged their sins and their need to repent.       They prayed, and were supported by prayers of others. They fasted and practiced other acts of personal discipline.

Yet Lent was not just a time of preparation for new converts. It was also a time for reflection and restoration of folks considered to be sinful. Sinful folks were those whose sins had separated them from others. Perhaps they had offered obedience to the emperor or they had denied Christianity in word or deed. Maybe they had fled Jerusalem instead of dying as a martyr. Maybe they were people whose occupations were not acceptable in the Christian community—soldiers, tax collectors, teachers of pagan beliefs. Lent gave them a chance to fast, pray, perform devotional acts—so they could be reincorporated into the Christian community.

Fasting is the second major theme of Lent. We don’t hear much about fasting these days; however, fasting was a well-accepted form of spiritual practice in ancient Jewish and Christian traditions. Brian McLaren notes our routine of three meals (or more) every day: “To forego normal eating—whether through a complete. . .or partial fast—becomes a kind of dietary pilgrimage, a way of making sure we haven’t let the rhythms of the everyday put us to sleep, a way to make sure our habits have not become addictions, that our kitchens have not become prisons.”[3]  We might consider some fasting this Lent—perhaps we will choose not to eat red meat or to give up sweets or chocolate. We could also give up smoking or drinking, or not eating out so often. What we give up is not important. It is the discipline involved that reminds us why we are doing this.

A third major theme of Lent is discipleship. Here is where we ask ourselves what it might cost to follow Jesus in an ongoing ministry of servanthood. For example, if you and I give up things during Lent, do we only deny ourselves for six weeks? What happens to discipline and discipleship after Easter Sunday? Christians know that Lent does end with resurrection joy. Yet real discipleship does not end at the Easter Vigil. To be a disciple of Jesus the Christ is an ongoing reality in our earthly Christian pilgrimage.

The fourth major theme of Lent is reconciliation. People in ancient times confessed their sins so they could be restored to Christian fellowship; thus, they showed publicly their desire to be reconciled to God, to each other, to themselves. During Lent, we look inwardly at our own selves. Then—and only then—can we look outwardly at others.  We ask God to show us just how separated we are. We pray that God will show us how to forgive ourselves. We pray that God will help us to say “I’m sorry” to people we have wronged, people we have talked about, people from whom we have become estranged. With God’s help, relationships broken by pride, bitterness, anger or jealousy can now be healed and strengthened.

Faith communities use different things to symbolize the time of Lenten repentance and reflection. Worship space is more stark and solemn. There are no flowers on the altar. We use the color purple—a symbol for both royalty and repentance. You may also see some off-white, raw linen or unbleached fabrics, which symbolize the use of sackcloth in the Hebrew scriptures as a public sign of repentance and grief. During Lent, the hymns and service music are somber. We do not say or sing alleluia and do not use the Gloria in excelsis until the Easter Vigil—all in keeping with the penitential season of Lent.

ashes-crossOn Ash Wednesday this week, some of us will begin our Lenten disciplines: giving up favorite foods or alcohol. Some of us will take on extra disciplines: spiritual reading, Lenten book study, prayer—especially with our children—journaling, retreats. Whatever our Lenten discipline, we must remember that we are all pilgrims. It is good to slow down, to think, to reflect seriously about our lives. Lent helps us to think about our lives as a pilgrimage, to put our lives in proper perspective. To step outside ourselves for a time and see where we have started, where we are, where we may be headed.

In this holy season, may we join together as fellow pilgrims on the way. May this journey with Jesus—one that will end with the Via Dolorosa—the Way of the Cross—deepen us and draw us ever near to the Holy One who died for us. Amen.

© The Rev. Sheila N. McJilton

Pictures accessed through Google. “Keeping a Holy Lent” fromhttp:// www.kingofpeace.org.

[1] Joseph P. Russell, Ed., The New Prayer Book Guide to Christian Education, (Cambridge & Boston: Cowley Publications, 1996), 63.

[2] Elizabeth Sherrill, “Journey to the End of the Earth, Part One,” Guideposts, December, 1992, 62.

[3] Brian McLaren, Finding our Way Again: The Return of the Ancient Practices, (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishing, 2008), 24.

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Luke 4:21-30

Jesus is in his hometown synagogue in Nazareth. He has just read verses from the prophet Isaiah. Now, Jesus says, “Today, this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” The hometown folks are impressed. Jesus has read with confidence and authority. Some are skeptical: “Is not this Joseph’s son?” Others are just proud. Word has spread that Jesus has been all over Galilee, teaching in other synagogues and doing wonderful things. Now he has come home. They hope Jesus will do some of those wonderful things with them.

Jesus disabuses them of this quickly when he uses two examples he knows will not go over well. Jesus reminds his listeners that back in Elijah’s time, when there was a severe famine, there were lots of widows in Israel. Yet Elijah did not knock on any of their doors. Instead, he went to a widow in Sidon—a foreigner who was not a Jewish believer. Elijah’s successor, Elisha, ministered to foreigners as well. Jesus reminds his hometown listeners that there were many lepers in Israel. Yet God did not heal them. Instead, God sent Namaan, a Syrian commander, to Elisha, to be healed. Within a couple of minutes, a group of people who had been so proud of their hometown son is enraged. How dare Jesus have the nerve to tell them that “they [will] not be vessels for the unfolding of God’s new narrative!”[1] Instead, Jesus is saying is that God’s narrative includes foreigners. . .people who do not keep the law and traditions. . .indeed, hated Syrians who have persecuted the Jewish people!

1977 Jesus of Naz synagogueAt first, the hometown folks are stunned. This is not the boy they had watched grow up in the village. Something has changed him, and not for the better. Suddenly, hostility fills the room. Crowd mentality takes over. The people who have known and loved Jesus the boy now drive him out of town and try to throw him off a cliff. But somehow Jesus passes through the crowd and leaves town.

God’s story rarely unfolds the way human beings think it should. In every century, God has continued to delight, to surprise, to disturb, to frighten, to anger people. We human beings like order, not chaos. Our lives are full of uncertainty, chaos and upheaval. We want our houses of worship to be orderly with a dependable routine. Episcopalians specialize in this. We like liturgy that is done decently and in good order. We love our historic buildings and stained glass windows. We want the kind of worship we want—music and liturgy that feeds us—maybe the kind of worship we remember as children. Yet the gospel this morning reminds us that God’s story will not be contained within our perceptions and expectations. As one writer has noted, “the God we proclaim and worship will not be domesticated, ‘homebound,’ shut in, confined by our temples, and stagnated by our stories.”[2]

God’s narrative may be spoken, sung and prayed in a particular worship space. Yet if we expect that narrative to stay within the walls of historic worship space, in a predictable pattern, or if we expect the narrative to continue to be “the way we’ve always done it,” we are going to be disappointed, maybe even angry.

Recently, there have been a lot of articles and public radio programs about people—especially young people—who are spiritual but not religious (SBNR). According to Pew Research, “One fifth of American adults have no religious affiliation” and “one third of adults under thirty have no religious affiliation.”[3] Some of these young adults grew up in homes where a faith tradition was practiced, but have left the Church because they do not see its relevance in their daily lives. Many of them had parents who practiced no formal faith tradition.

Yet human beings are always trying to make sense of their lives. While some insist that there is no God, no higher being, others hope that there is something larger than ourselves—even when we are not sure what that higher being is. God may no longer be an old man with a white beard who scowls, tells us we’ve been bad and sends us to a corner for Time Out. Yet who, or what, is God? We have no clue. And the minute we think we do, God surprises us and changes. God is always doing a new thing among us. The more we resist it, the more it seems to happen anyway.

Today is our Annual Parish Meeting. As I have reflected on the past several years of our ministry together, I decided to go back and re-read the St. Philip’s Parish Profile that was put together in 2006. Where are we now vis-à-vis what you all said you wanted to accomplish and be as a parish? Bearing in mind that these things will be the stuff of reflection with the Vestry soon, I will just note a few things this morning.

You acknowledged your diversity on a number of levels. Yet you said this: “We wish to become an even more inviting and inclusive place for diversity to flourish and find unity as we learn to grow into the fullness of Christ’s love.”[4] I think that has continued to happen.

Open Door of Church Sm_edited-1In 2006, you had implemented “a multi-tiered newcomer response and incorporation system, which we want to continue and strengthen.”[5] This framework has not been continued. It is an area which we need to address more intentionally again.

“Our parishioners have a diverse range of worship style preferences that effectively engage and inspire them, and reducing to two services has made it difficult to accommodate everyone. We want to continue working to maximize our ability to meet those needs, and hope to grow sufficiently to support the addition of a third worship service in the near future.”  As I have thought about this and the recent articles on Spiritual but Not Religious folks, worship at a third service might very well be something you’ve never had or never considered before.

Your parish profile spoke of a passion for outreach, youth programs and Christian education, saying that you wanted to revitalize these by allocating more resources to them—this included non-financial ways to strengthen them. Slowly, we are making progress with these.

You said “As St. Philip’s grows, we need to expand parish-wide fellowship activities outside of worship. . .We also wish to offer more events that invite members of the surrounding community to be with us.” This, of course, requires more intentionality and publicity—whether that is on our website, on Facebook, a banner hung out front, a newspaper ad, or through neighborhood e-mail listserves.

The parish profile noted that the lower level of Wyatt Ministry Center is unfinished, and that this project “has remained on hold pending resolution of long-standing water issues. These issues are actively being addressed, and past plans for finishing the lower level are being reviewed and updated as needed.” For those who have forgotten, the basement of Wyatt will not just have much-needed space for Sunday School. It will have space where adults will gather for study and meetings. An elevator will provide a way for mature people to access the meeting rooms in the basement. It will be a warm and welcoming space for God’s children of all ages in a variety of ways.

As I re-read this profile, through the lens of today’s gospel, I have wondered what God’s new narrative might be in this parish. The Lord may be saying something new to us—something that pushes us beyond our comfort zones. This new story of God may delight us. It may surprise us. It may frighten us. It may anger us. Yet God is who God is, and God will be who God will be. This is not about you and me. It is about God. You and I have a part to play in God’s story.

When we hear that new story, will we throw the possibilities off a cliff? Or will we—in faith—go down the road with Jesus?

© The Rev. Sheila N. McJilton

[1] David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, Editors, Feasting on the Word: Year C, Vol. 1, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 310.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Heidi Glenn, “Losing Our Religion: The Growth of the Nones” on NPR’s “Morning Edition,” January 13, 2013. Accessed at http://www.npr.org/blogs/thetwo-way/2013/01/14/169164840/losing-our-religion-the-growth-of-the-nones.

[4] From St. Philip’s Parish Profile 2006, 20.

[5] Ibid.

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