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Archive for June, 2017

Summer Journeys

TheWayProgramGuide_Page_120copy

Picture of “The Way” accessed through On Being website

Many of us will go on a trip this summer–on vacation, or to visit family, or to be with good friends. That means trips to the beach, or to the mountains, or other places. Some will have a “staycation,” and get some stuff done around the house.  And the children will, of course, get to enjoy some pool and play time.

A summer trip has a beginning, and an end. A journey? Well, it’s hard to pin a journey down in that way. We do begin our earthly journeys when we are conceived, spend (about) nine months inside a human mother’s body, and then emerge to take our first breaths in “this” part of existence.

So there is a physical, human journey. Yet there is also a spiritual one, and this kind of journey takes some meandering paths, some dead ends, some detours that we never imagined. Recently, I received a manuscript, all typed in capital letters, written by a great-uncle of mine. He was born in 1897, and according to this manuscript, he was eighty and “nearly blind.” It seems as if he had a wonderful imagination, as I cannot imagine that all of his tales are true. But the ones of my ancestors crossing a mountainous terrain with wagons, with only the ill and children riding, and forging their own trail (none visible) was compelling. He told of one man who had gone on ahead two years earlier, but none of them had any idea whether that man had lived, or died. And I could almost feel the disappointment when the group ended up not in the west, as they had hoped, but north, in Kentucky.

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Photo by Stefan Steinbauer on Unsplash

You may ask, “How did people not know in which direction they were headed?” A good Boy or Girl Scout would have figured that out. (See where the sun is!) Yet it sounds like the dense growth and forest cut out much of the sunlight, and I suspect that without the help of Native Americans (one of whom was a common-law wife of my great-grandfather), they would have died. I can only imagine what a journey they took. What a difficult, demanding one it was.

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Genesis 21:1-21

Eyeglasses clem-onojeghuo-143743

Eyeglasses clem-onojeghuo-143743 from http://www.unsplash.com

What does it mean to you, as a human being, when someone sees you? When you, as a human being, really see someone else?  How do you know that you are really being seen?

In the 20009 science fiction movie Avatar, the alien people, the Na’Vi, greet each other this way: “I see you.”  “Like mystics here on Earth, the Na’Vi have an experience of unity of consciousness with other beings, all of which (themselves included) are really just manifestations of one Being, which they call Ai’wa.”[1] Now on some level, one can argue that this is like people of faith who say to each other, “the God in me sees—and acknowledges—the God in you.” Or as we say in yoga, “Namaste.”

Now I don’t mean that we are all gods. Yet there is God’s DNA in each of us. It is this spiritual connection that offers the potential of seeing and of being seen. In today’s Old Testament stories from Genesis, we have some clear examples of people who see and do not see each other. People who hear and do not hear each other. People who allow their own selfishness and jealousy to push aside compassion and welcome for the other.

Last week, we reflected on the story of three angels who visited Abraham and Sarah. The LORD promised that in their old age, they would finally have an heir. You may remember that as Sarah overheard the divine visitor promise this, she laughed in disbelief. Yet there is nothing “too wonderful for the LORD,”so the next year, Isaac was born. Isaac’s name means “He laughs.” So the baby laughter of Isaac joins the childish laughter of Ishmael, the son born to Abraham and Hagar, his Egyptian slave.

When Isaac is weaned, Abraham throws a big party to celebrate, because in the ancient world, a baby’s survival to childhood merits celebration. Yet on this feast day, Sarah sees Ishmael, Hagar’s son. But she does not see him in a positive way. What is Ishmael doing? Laughing. Probably enjoying the feast, along with everyone else. Yet as Sarah watches Ishmael, she does not see a happy teenager. Instead, she sees the heir-apparent—someone to threaten the future of her own son.

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Whether you look in the mirror, see someone you love, or look online at the news, you know that lots of folks need healing and connection. There is no doubt that reading newspapers or listening to/watching news or reading news online is discouraging.

“Is there no balm in Gilead?” Contrary to the reassurance of the old gospel hymn, we may wonder if the answer is “No. None.”

I have decided that at least three times this summer, I am going to offer the chance for you to have healing prayers–either for yourself, or for someone you love–on Sunday morning during the liturgy. Alternatively, if you don’t need healing, or need prayers for that, then perhaps you would just like a prayer of blessing.

In case you didn’t realize this, we have a rite for this in our Book of Common Prayer. “Ministration to the Sick” begins on p. 453. On p. 458, you will find “Prayers for the Sick” and on p. 461, there are several prayers “for use by a Sick Person.”  The prayer that I learned many years ago is one I almost always use (with a small variation at the end) when I make the sign of the cross on someone’s head, then lay my hands on top of their head:

“I lay my hands upon you in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, beseeching our Lord Jesus Christ to sustain you with his presence, to drive away all sickness of body and spirit, and to give you that victory of life and peace which will enable you to serve him both now and evermore. Amen.”

So this Sunday, bring someone with you who needs prayers–whether those are healing prayers or prayers of blessing and peace. Drink from God’s well. Drink deeply. Be refreshed. Be seen. Be heard. Be healed. God loves you.

And if it would help you to listen to the hymn “There is a Balm in Gilead” sung by the late, great Mahalia Jackson, here is the link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DFMY4V7RdbU

Photo of water taken by Samara Doule. Accessed at http://www.unsplash.com

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Genesis 21:1-21

Genesis 21:1-21  (translation from the TANAKH, the Jewish Bible)

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The LORD took note of Sarah as He had promised, and the LORD did for Sarah as He had spoken. Sarah conceived and bore a son to Abraham in his old age, at the set time of which God had spoken. Abraham gave his newborn son, whom Sarah had borne him, the name of Isaac. And when his son Isaac was eight days old, Abraham circumcised him, as God had commanded him. Now Abraham was a hundred years old when his son Isaac was born to him. Sarah said, “Go has brought me laughter; everyone who hears will laugh with me.” And she added,

“Who would have said to Abraham

That Sarah would suckle children!

Yet I have borne a son in his old age.”

The child grew up and was weaned, and Abraham held a great feast on the day that Isaac was weaned.

Sarah saw the son whom Hagar the Egyptian had borne to Abraham playing. She said to Abraham, “Cast out that slave-woman and her son, for the son of that slave shall not share in the inheritance with my son Isaac.”

The matter distressed Abraham greatly, for it concerned a son of his. But God said to Abraham, “Do not be distressed over the boy or your slave; whatever Sarah tells you, do as she says, for it is through Isaac that offspring shall be continued for you. As for the son of the slave-woman, I will make a nation of him, too, for he is your seed.”

Early next morning Abraham took some bread and a skin of water, and gave them to Hagar. He placed them over her shoulder, together with the child, and sent her away. And she wandered about in the wilderness of Beer-sheba.  When the water was gone from the skin, she left the child under one of the bushes, and went and sat down at a distance, a bowshot away; for she thought, “Let me not look on as the child dies.” And sitting thus afar, she burst into tears.

God heard the cry of the boy, and an angel of God called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, “What trouble you, Hagar? Fear not, for God has heeded the cry of the boy where he is. Come, lift up the boy and hold him by the hand, for I will make a great nation of him.” Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. She went and filled the skin with water, and let the boy drink. God was with the boy and he grew up; he dwelt in the wilderness and became a bowman. He lived in the wilderness of Paran; and his mother got a wife for him from the land of Egypt.

 

 

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Monday, 19 June, 2017

Flag at 9 11 Site

St. Philip’s Parish in Laurel has our share of people who come and go. We are not a Capitol Hill parish, which often means that folks move with presidential administrations, or make moves associated with the State Department.  However, we are close to Ft. Meade, which results in a different kind of transition.  Some people come through our doors and stay for a year, some for three.

Yesterday, the proverbial stars aligned. We have a couple, one of whom is military, and they are being transferred overseas.  I had already planned to bring them up front at announcement time and do a special blessing. Yet as I looked, I saw other faces:

A young couple whom I had married, who are currently stationed in NC, but he is here for training, and as it turns out, as he gets ready to retire from military, his wife has been accepted as an officer in the Air Force. So they are preparing to switch parent duties for their two young sons.

Another couple was sitting in worship, one of whom is, at the moment, in reserves, and the other an active duty nurse in a nearby hospital.

A woman was in the back, whom is a retired teacher, but who was in military, and now may still be in the reserves.

Then I looked, and saw the parents of a young woman who is now in the Navy, who lives not too far from Laurel, but who grew up in this parish.

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david-beale-194104.jpg, at http://www.unsplash.com

So I had a thought. At the end of the service, after I did announcements, I asked ALL of them to come forward. And I asked the mother of our Navy person also to come forward, in a kind of proxy.  I introduced them, in case people did not know them (and few knew the young couple well.)  Then I said, “You guys work for this country. I know that some of you do stuff you cannot talk about. And so I want to say thank you for your work on behalf of our safety. ”

Then I said, “You know, people come into this parish, and for a time, they walk with us, and we with them, in our spiritual journeys. Then they leave for other, sometimes far-flung places. But we hold them in our hearts, and we pray they do the same. So I want you guys up front to gather around and lay hands on A & B (initials changed), and we are all going to bless them.”

It was a wonderful moment. Keep in mind that several of these men and women did not even know each other. Yet they are all bound by a common bond. They are military, in various branches, or they are family of military. They understand the fragility of life. They deeply understand the value of support–for them and for their families. They have worked hard to achieve what they have achieved. They are willing, by virtue of their being in the service, to go into danger at a moment’s notice.

As we prayed together yesterday morning, I felt like this little “tribe” up front, praying and being prayed for, was surrounded by a cloud of witnesses, and by holiness. In the midst of craziness, chaos, conflict and division in this country, I pray that these children of God received a blessing yesterday, and a sense of peace.

They are not alone. The love of St. Philip’s goes with them. More importantly, the love of God surrounds and goes with them too. ~Sheila

Note: photo of flag at top taken by McJilton in New York City, at the 9-11 Memorial site.

 

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Genesis 18:1-15; 21:1-7

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In my Thursday e-mail, I told you that I plan to focus on Genesis this summer. I have also encouraged you to read this amazing book of scripture, in whatever translation you prefer, to get some sense of its broad, deep scope.

We must remember that in the great faith story of God’s people, the pivotal event is the Exodus. In fact, the book of Exodus was likely written before Genesis. In some sense, the Exodus happened, then people began to ask “How did we get here? How did we begin? Why do we worship this God?”  With that in mind, we might consider Genesis to be the “Prequel” of Exodus.

You may ask, as many have, whether the people in Genesis—Adam, Eve, Abraham, Sarah, etc. are real people or not. No one knows. If you are familiar with American Mythologist Joseph Campbell, you know that in every world religion or culture, there are types of people. There are also common patterns: a hero’s journey, suffering, death, transformation (and usually, also a return home). So whether Adam and Eve, Abraham and Sarah, were real, historical people is beside the point. The point is that they are archetypal figures who point us to the Holy One who created us, the One who continues to sustain, to strengthen, to dwell among us (Emmanuel).

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Larger Perspective

Before we focus on this morning’s story—Abraham and Sarah’s three divine visitors—I would like to step back and look at a larger view in this prequel of Exodus. This begins with the land.

Land is critical in Israel’s history. Remember that after being exiled from the Garden of Eden, Adam tilled the land. Cain harvested from the land. Noah planted a vineyard and tended the land after the flood. Now, we have Abraham—who has no land. Earlier in his life, when he was called Abram, God commanded him to leave his ancestral home. God said:

“Go-you-forth from your land,

from your kindred,

from your father’s house,

to the land that I will let you see.

I will make a great nation of you and will give-you-blessing and will make your name great.

Be a blessing!”[1]

Abraham Map.gif

God promised three things:  God promised Abram land. God promised Abram as many descendants as there were stars in the sky. God promised that Abram and his descendants would be a light and blessing to the nations. When God made these promises, Abram was seventy-five years old. Ten years later, he and his family had traveled all the way to Egypt because of a famine, then back to the wilderness of the Negev. Still, God’s promises had not been fulfilled.

There is no land to call his own. No child. Not a blessing to anyone, because in that ancient culture, to be away from the land of your ancestral fathers, and to be without heirs, you had no hope, no future.

Sarah and Hagar.jpg

Prompted by Sarai, Abram took matters into his own hands. They had brought a slave girl named Hagar back from Egypt; because Hagar was his property, Abram could, and did, father a child with her. Then things went terribly wrong. Hagar taunted Sarai because Sarai had no child, and Hagar was going to.   Sarai abused Hagar, prompting the young slave woman to run away.

Out in the wilderness, an angel appeared to Hagar. This angel said: Go home, have this baby, and name him Ishmael. But the angel also told Hagar that Ishmael—which means “God Hearkens”—

“shall be a wild-ass of a man,

his hand against all,

hand of all against him,

yet in the presence of all his brothers shall he dwell.”[2]

Here is the etymology of the struggle—still obvious today—between the Jewish people and the Arabs, between Israelites and the Palestinians.

What about Abram, the patriarch of both these tribes? Both these boys? Abram was eighty-six when Ishmael was born. Thirteen years later, Abram lives in Hebron. First the Lord appears to Abram and makes an official covenant with Abram. God changes his name to Abraham—which means “Father of a multitude”—and changes Sarai’s name to Sarah—which means “Princess.” [Side Note: this is the only time in scripture that God changed a woman’s name—this means Sarah is a significant character! ]

God promises Abraham that Ishmael will not be the son by which this patriarch will be blessed. No. There will be an official heir, and Sarah will bear this promised son. Mind you, by this time, Sarah is ninety years old, and Abraham is ninety-nine! Thus we arrive at today’s story.

Where Abraham is At This Point

So far, none of God’s promises have been fulfilled. No land. No official descendant. No blessing to the family or anyone else,     because no heir equals no blessing. So Abraham continues to wait—as the people of Israel will often wait—in hope. But a shadow lies across this hope. As one theologian notes, “Israel waits and hopes—in joy, in perplexity, in eager longing, but also, in wonderment and near-despair, because most often the promises are not yet kept, and Yahweh’s oath is held in abeyance. This abeyance makes Israel as a people of hope, waiting in expectation.”[3]  God may have made an official covenant with Abraham, yet Abraham still waits. In eager longing. In near-despair. Then one day, three strangers show up at Abraham and Sarah’s tent.

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Divine Visitors

Now the reader understands these are not just strangers, because the passage begins with “The LORD appeared to Abraham.” But we, as readers, are not told exactly when Abraham realizes this is God.

Yet Abraham hosts these divine visitors in first-class style. (You don’t kill a young calf for just anyone in that time.) Furthermore, it is significant that Abraham waits on these visitors himself, rather than to have Hagar or Sarah do that. The LORD again promises a child to Sarah and Abraham. Sarah, who is eavesdropping, probably just inside the tent flap, laughs. She is ninety years old. Her biological clock stopped ticking a long time ago, and clearly there is no longer a physical relationship with her husband. (No more pleasure for Sarah.) Now, the divine visitor promises a miracle, which Sarah finds very funny. Yet when the visitor overhears her laughter—which she lies about—the response is this: “Is anything too wonderful for the LORD?”  Or, in another translation,  “Is anything beyond YHWH?”[4] Obviously not.

That is because despite Abraham’s falling on his face with laughter in Chapter 17 of Genesis, and Sarah’s laughter in Chapter 18, Isaac is born the next year. And what does Isaac mean?  Yitshak: “He laughs.” Yet the preacher suspects that instead of laughing in disbelief,  this laughter is full of joy and wonder at a God who finally makes good on a promise—one of the most important in the ancient world. There is now an heir. There is now the potential for blessing—to a family, and beyond, to the nations.

Abraham holding baby Isaac

Waiting Now, In the Twenty-First Century

I wonder what we wait for now, in the twenty-first century. What does God promise us, and where are these promises grounded for us?  Is it in land? Descendants? Blessing to others?

In 2017, we do not necessarily have, or even want, land. Yet perhaps our loss of connection to the earth, to the land, has wreaked environmental havoc beyond our control. Glaciers in Montana, in Alaska, and in the Arctic are melting. The sea level is rising so much on the South Florida coast that home owners in Miami Beach are gravely concerned. Closer to home, off the Eastern Shore of Virginia, out in the Chesapeake Bay, Tangier Island is slowly sinking from erosion and rising sea levels. It is possible that the approximately 250 people who live on Tangier Island will have to abandon their homes there in twenty-five to fifty years.[5]  

So our connection with the land is fragile. Yet this is difficult to see, because we, unlike ancient peoples, do not put our hopes in the promise of land. Nor do all of us want, or hope for, a descendant, per se. Today, some of us participate in the upbringing of children in a very different way: we adopt; we teach; we raise a grandchild; we are godparents; we parent within the “tribe.”  For example, in this parish tribe, this happens at Sunday School, Camp St. Philip’s, at Coffee Hour, or as we pass babies around this worship space.

What does it take to be part of a tribe? Several things.

  1. Common language.
  2. Understanding of common symbols.
  3. Taboos. There are always things you don’t do in a particular tribe; you need to know what those are.
  4. Shared rituals and customs—like initiation rites (Confirmation) or rites of transition (weddings, funerals) or both (baptisms.)

Now to return for a moment to the land. . .In our Christian tribe, we do not have a covenant of land. Yet if you think about it, the most desirable land—the land most fought over in any country—is land with water. Precious water. And what is the most important tribal rite of initiation and transition for Christians?  The covenant of water. Holy Baptism.

In this deeply symbolic rite—one that includes naming, water poured three times over one’s head, the invocation of the Holy Trinity, the blessing, a cruciform mark with holy oil, and the promises that all of us say—we are born and re-born by the Holy Spirit into the Body of Christ. We make our covenant, our baptismal covenant, with God and with each other.

Candles WNC

People of Hope Amidst Near-Despair

Like the ancient patriarchs and matriarchs, like the ancient tribes of Israel, we Christians may look at the world around us in near-despair. Will God save us? If so, when—and how— will God save us—from each other and ourselves? When will God fulfill God’s promises to make this world perfect,  whole, and once again, a Paradise?

In the meantime, we “live in the waiting.”[6] We live as “people of hope.”[7] We proclaim our “Ground of Being”[8] in God when we enter the waters of Holy Baptism. We renounce the evil powers of this world. We commit our lives to Jesus Christ. We promise to do all in our power to live as Jesus lived.

We may or may not see God’s promises fulfilled in our earthly lives. Yes, we live in a world that is chaotic, violent, senseless, divided. Yet we stand firm. We stand in hope. We hold hands and work together for justice and mercy, bringing—as best we can—the kingdom of God to earth as it is in heaven.

So do not lose hope, children. Look beyond you—in space and time—to God’s vision. Walk together. Hold each other up. Encourage one another. Open your heart and welcome the stranger who shows up at the door. Because you never know. It just might be God.

Grounded in this amazing, awesome, surprising God, this God who shares our sufferings and our joyful laughter, this God who blesses us, we will all become blessings. Because after all, is anything too wonderful for the LORD?  Amen.

(c) The Rev. Dr. Sheila N. McJilton
[1] Everett Fox, The Five Books of Moses, (New York: Schocken Books, 1983, 1986, 1990, 1995), 55.
[2] Ibid, 69.
[3] Walter Bruggeman, Theology of the Old Testament, (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress Press, 1997), 169.
[4] Ibid, 76.
[5] http://www.richmond.com/news/virginia/ap/trump-calls-tangier-mayor-says-not-to-worry-about-sea/article_ef6683e1-e46a-5ff1-b188-ba8a3728bec2.html.
[6] Ibid., 166.
[7] Ibid., 169.
[8] This term famously used by existentialist philosopher and theologian Paul Tillich. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paul_Tillich.
Pictures:
Picture of green leaf:  sarah-dorweiler-211779 from http://www.unsplash.com
Picture of Sinai Desert from space accessed through Google images.
Abraham’s Journey map accessed through Google.
Picture of Sarah & Hagar accessed through Google.
Artwork of Three Angelic Visitors with Abraham is Marc Chagall’s work. Accessed through Google search.
Picture of Abraham cradling baby Isaac accessed through Google.
Photo of candles at Washington National Cathedral taken by McJilton

 

 

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genesis-logo_nero-uai-720x276

Last week, I was looking ahead at the Sunday scripture readings for the summer. In summer, Episcopalians get a choice between two Old Testament Readings and two Psalms. In casual language, we refer to these as “Track One” and “Track Two.” As I looked at the possibilities, I decided to focus on the first book of our scriptures, Genesis, because we’ll get stories from Genesis all summer long.

Reading Genesis This Summer

If you have never read the book of Genesis, maybe this summer is a good time to do that. Genesis is full of amazing stories. It begins with Creation, the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve. It ends with Joseph’s death (and Chapters 37-50 are the only “novella” in Holy Scripture.)  In between, we get murder, incest, drunks, betrayals, deception & lies, big promises, arranged marriages, covenants, criss-crossing trips from the Mideast to Egypt and back again, love, vivid dreams, deaths, and some near-death experiences. Why no, you can’t make this stuff up–and who knew all of this was in one book in the Bible?

My Merriam-Webster dictionary (yes, I am a Luddite and I still have a big dictionary on a dictionary stand!) defines the word GENESIS as following:

Genesis

So in the book of Genesis, we get the origins of our humanity, the origins of our relationship with the Holy One who created us. Many of these stories are not easy to read, nor easy to tell–never mind to preach! And of course we’ll only get a few of these stories on Sundays. Yet they are important glimpses into human struggles that you and I still continue to have today–with the possible exception of the Binding of Isaac in Genesis 22 (arguably the most difficult chapter in the entire Bible, and one that is rarely preached.) Note here: Thank you, Dr. Ellen Davis, who taught this chapter at Virginia Seminary in fall of 1996.

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