Archive for August, 2017

Bar Harbor1

The Ocean Path
This summer, while on vacation on Mt. Desert Island in Maine, we went to the harbor in Bar Harbor. The grassy hillside there is one of our favorite places (as is the clam chowder at the Bar Harbor Inn, which, in our opinions, is the best on the Island–but I digress. . .), because we can spread out a blanket, or sit in our beach chairs and watch the boats on the harbor, or watch people, or lie back on the blanket and look at cloud shapes.

The other thing I like to do is to walk the Ocean Path that winds along the edge of the shore.  One afternoon, as I walked this path, I noticed children on the rocks, building cairns.

A cairn is a mound of rough stones. Used as landmarks since prehistoric times, a cairn is often used as a trailmarker. They can be painted or decorated–although the cairns we have seen in Maine are not.  Cairns are very useful when you are hiking a trail, and you’re not quite sure if you’re on the right path. A deliberately placed cairn tells you you’re on the right path. In extreme circumstances, this can mean the difference in life or death if you’re on a treacherous path, or the weather has turned bad.

But on this lovely summer afternoon, I watched the children for a moment, and I chuckled. It looked like a number of summer visitors had been enchanted with building cairns. So here is what the cairns looked like:


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This past week, as I was walking through the McKee Room at the church, I noticed the easel board with some interesting thoughts written on it. It was entitled “Your Time for Recovery.”

“Recovery takes time. A Lifetime. And that’s good, not bad, because recovery is more than just getting clean & sober. In its broadest, most meaningful sense recovery is the process of becoming the person you want to be. . .the person you were meant to be.”

I just stood there and thought, “That is powerful. Wow.”

St. Philip’s (corner of 6th & Main in Laurel, Md)  offers three weekly Twelve-Step meetings:
Wednesdays at 6:30 p.m. Smart Recovery (women only)–McKee Room (between Admin wing & worship space)
Fridays at 7:00 p.m.  NA Meeting–Wyatt Hall (parish hall on left side of campus as you face the church from Main Street)
Saturdays at 10:00 a.m. Smart Recovery–Wyatt Hall Conference Room


Unintentional Witness
Throughout my life, I have known many people who are recovering–from alcohol or drugs–or whose loved ones have. Some of those folks have been part of support groups for spouses whose wives or husbands drink or use. Some are Adult Children of Alcoholics. About a year and a half ago, I officiated at a funeral at Donaldson’s Funeral Home for a young man who had overdosed on heroin–and although I never go “rogue” at a funeral, especially one where I don’t know folks–I opened my mouth, and I guess the Holy Spirit had some things to say. Well, I’ll blame Her anyway.  I stood there, wondered for about two seconds what in the world I was going to say, then took my time. I said that people make decisions that affect their own lives, and the lives of other people. It was not fair that this mother had to bury her child, or that these siblings had to lose a brother. That it takes a support system to make it in life. And then I pretty much said that one of the most courageous thing a person could do was to admit he or she is powerless, and ask for help. To my amazement, from the middle of the room, a young man called out “Amen sister!”  I was taken a bit aback.

Yet this support encouraged me. I continued, “As a matter of fact, there is an NA Meeting tonight down at St. Philip’s, and anyone who wants to go would be welcome there.” I said a few other things, and concluded the service with a blessing, as I usually do.

As I headed out of the door of Donaldson’s Chapel, I passed through a cloud of smoke who were standing there. One approached me. It was the guy who had said “Amen, sister” during my remarks. He thanked me for “saying what everyone in the room was thinking.” He then told me that he lives in Baltimore, and he’s been clean for some years. But that there were many people sitting there that night (chapel was full, by the way) who needed to hear what I said.  We bid each other good evening and I went to my car.

I was in awe of God, and of the power of Spirit that had come through me that night. I had no clue what I was doing, really, yet I trusted that God did what needed to be done, and God said what needed to be said. Risky business, I dare say. But every now and again, I am able to get my human self out of the way and let God be what God will be. When I can, good stuff happens. God happens.

Connections and Learning
Of course the other sad truth–at least to me–is that there is so little connection between the deeply spiritual and honest nature of Twelve Step meetings and worship in the institutional Church. (Irony here: an Episcopal priest named Sam Shoemaker founded AA.) People who have hit bottom and admit it, asking for help, knowing that there are many steps in their journey of life–these folks are usually honest, soul-searching and reflective. They are also willing to be open to change and new insights.  I wonder how many people in this parish, or any other church, could honestly say that about themselves?


Like the Twelve Step program, the Christian life is a journey. Yes, sometimes it is one step forward, two steps back. Hand held out for help, then another shaky step forward. Open a Bible and read a little in Genesis. Sit for a few quiet moments and say a few words to God in the morning. One step forward. Breathe. Be still and think about how open I am to change if that is what would make my life deeper and more fulfilling. Ask who I have wronged–with something I have done, or something critical I have said to them. Then go and ask for their forgiveness. And remember that in our lives together, we’re on a journey, not looking so much for the destination. Because perhaps the destination–the Beloved Community–is the journey itself.
“Recovery takes time. A Lifetime. And that’s good, not bad, because recovery is more than just getting clean & sober. In its broadest, most meaningful sense recovery is the process of becoming the person you want to be. . .the person you were meant to be.”

How will you become the person you want to be? The person you’re meant to be? ~With you on the journey. S

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“There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.” Leonard Cohen

Sometimes a crack in a vase is easy to see. Other times. . .not so much. You find a very nice vase in a pottery store. It is on the table with a sign that reads: “On Sale. Today Only. All Sales Final.” You pick it up. Admire it. Wonder why this lovely piece of pottery is discounted. Later, at home, you hold the vase up to the sunlight. Only then do you see it. A hairline fracture that you could not see in the store is obvious in the light. You think, “I’m taking this vase back to that store!” Then you remember. “On Sale. Today Only. All Sales Final.” Oh, right. So you decide to display this beautiful vase on the fireplace mantel. You just make a mental note not to pour water in the vase and put flowers in it. This cracked vase will never grace your dining room table. It must go where guests cannot see the hairline crack.

Yes, sometimes a crack in a vase is difficult to see. This is the case with Joseph, the next-to-youngest of Jacob’s twelve sons. When we think about Joseph, we usually remember that coat of many colors. A robe with long sleeves, which means the one who wears it won’t ever have to get his hands dirty. Daddy’s favorite. The privileged one. A braggart.

Joseph was a spoiled brat. When he was a teenager, his jealous, angry older brothers threw Joseph into a pit, then proceeded to enjoy their lunch. When a caravan of Midianite traders passed by, headed for Egypt, the brothers sold Joseph into slavery. Let the Egyptians deal with Daddy’s boy. The author of Genesis then follows the Spoiled Brat to Egypt. Joseph rises in influence, rising in authority over other other slaves. He is handsome and charming. This gets him into trouble, because his boss’s wife tries to seduce him. When he rejects her advances, Potiphar’s wife takes revenge. Before you know it, Joseph finds himself in prison “on (false) charges of sexual assault.”[1]

Eventually, Joseph’s skills at interpreting dreams—which we had first seen when he was a boy—is a ticket out of jail. He accurately predicts a famine. Seven years of bounty. Then seven years of famine. Joseph advises the Pharoah to store up 20% of the harvest during the good years to prepare for the bad ones to come. Pharoah rewards Joseph, promoting him to second in command. Joseph becomes what amounts to Secretary of Agriculture of Egypt. He has power over many lives—especially the livesof thousands of hungry people who travel to Egypt to buy grain during the famine. People such as ten men from Canaan who had sold their brother into slavery years ago and who now show up in Joseph’s presence.

Of course Joseph immediately recognizes his own brothers. Here is the moment he could show compassion, love, and forgiveness to reconcile with his brothers. He has the power to be generous. Yet he is not. Joseph is harsh, pretending he has never seen these men before. In fact, he accuses the brothers of coming to Egypt to spy. In a cruel, manipulative move, he says he will hold them hostage until the youngest brother—Benjamin—comes to Egypt. For three days, Joseph keeps his brothers in jail, toying with them like a cat with a mouse. Then he says he will send food back to Canaan if one of the brothers stays in order to guarantee that the others will return with Benjamin.

Not knowing that Joseph understands their language, the brothers squabble. Maybe God is paying them back because they mistreated their brother Joseph all those years ago. Reuben says, “I told you not to wrong the boy. But you wouldn’t listen. Now comes the reckoning for his blood.”

Joseph throws Simon in jail; the rest of them pack for home. But Joseph’s cat-and-mouse game continues. When the brothers stop for the night, their jaws drop. The money they had paid for the grain is lying atop their sacks of grain. They know they did not steal the money. But how will they prove that? Their old father has sent them off to Egypt to get food for the family. They’ve gotten food, but at a terrible cost. A powerful man holds Simon hostage in prison until the brothers return with Benjamin, the youngest son in the family. This will surely cause the death of old Jacob– a man who, we may remember, has also misused power. Back in the day, Jacob also practiced deceit and betrayal for his own purposes.

When Papa hears the demands of the powerful man in Egypt, he refuses. He has lost one beloved son. He will not lose Benjamin too. Yet eventually, the grain disappears. Food is running low. Only when Judah offers to be the bond for Benjamin will Jacob relent. So laden with gifts and double the amount of silver found in the sacks, the brothers stand before Joseph again. The brothers are scared. Will they all be taken captive and enslaved? No. However, Joseph continues to toy with them. They tell him, “We found this silver in our sacks!”   Joseph replies, “No problem. If there was money in your sack, God must have put it there. I got your money. All is well.”  Now the brothers must be wondering if they have gone mad. This just does not add up.

Then Joseph invites the men to have lunch with him. He seats the men in order, from eldest to youngest. They are further confused. How did this Egyptian Secretary of Agriculture know their birth order?  More cat and mouse.

In typical hospitable fashion, Joseph asks the men how their father is. They present him with the gifts they have brought. Then, amidst the brothers, Joseph sees Benjamin, his baby brother. Game over. Heart finally triumphs over calculated power. Joseph has to excuse himself before he breaks down in front of them all. When he returns, Joseph reveals his true identity to his brothers. “I am Joseph. . .I am your brother Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt.” The brothers are dumbfounded. Silent. No wonder. Despite Joseph’s yearning for family and home, he has still used power and privilege to exact revenge on those who wronged him—even putting his father’s life on the line. This revelation is hard to believe.

We don’t see it in today’s reading. Yet even after Joseph reconciles with his brothers, they never really trust him again.  Joseph holds power. They do not. For years after this, the brothers fear that once Jacob dies, Joseph will take ultimate revenge on them. Despite Joseph’s assurance that God is in the midst of all this, he never really convinces his older brothers. Reconciliation in this family is uneasy at best. It is never really whole. Someone cracked the vase, and it will never be the same again. Maybe if they keep the vase as a show piece, and never fill it with water, no one will know. But somebody in the family knows better than to take that vase to the well.

Power is an interesting trait, is it not? You know when you have power. You know when you do not. What you do with your power matters.

In the past week, I have thought a lot about about biblical figures, political figures, human beings who hold power, those who do not. Power and privilege have determined much of history. Even in biblical stories, we must remember that the winners wrote the stories. It is true that they did not always write just the beautiful, perfect stories. They did include ugly stories where someone cheated on a spouse, someone betrayed a friend, someone murdered someone else. Yet the winners’ stories are ones that endure. Winners with power.

Those who have no power wonder if their day will come. They keep their ancestry by oral tradition. They write by candlelight. They hide in secret places. They travel the Underground Railroad. They sing spirituals whose meaning is known only to the powerless. They know that they really cannot trust the one who holds power over them.

This past week, the beautiful vase of what we call humanity—especially in the United States—has revealed an ugly fracture. This vase, held high in the light of hundreds of Tiki torches in Charlottesville, Virginia, was not pretty. It revealed the deep fracture of racism and white nationalism that some people hoped had disappeared—or at least diminished. Of course the people who thought that, or hoped, are the ones who have held power and privilege—people like the preacher standing before you.

Now I must say that I did not think for a minutes that racism was dead. However, I did not think that fifty four years after Dr. King’s March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom[2], a group of white supremacists would march near the University of Virginia and a man would deliberately drive a Dodge Challenger into the midst of people protesting their actions.

I did not think that in 2017, white nationalists and KKK members would march through the streets at night, chanting “blood and soil,” (a Nazi slogan) and “you will not replace us.”

I did not think that on a summer night in 2017, UVA students would hide in their apartments, peering out from mail slots in doors, in fear of a mob.

I did not think that in 2017, at the end of a peaceful evening prayer service, with over a thousand people in St. Paul’s Memorial Church, doors would be shut. Officials would ask worshippers to exit via the back and side doors of the church for fear that an angry mob would injure or kill them.[3]

The roots of racism are very old and very deep. They are far too old and deep to address in one sermon. Simply put, white people have long feared our brothers and sisters who have skin darker than ours. Confession: Some of my own ancestors weretitled Virginia landowners who owned slaves. There are whispers that somewhere on my Mama’s side is a slave woman. Of course she does not show up on Ancestry.com. No surprise there.

Black people often have a complicated heritage as well. I’m sure that some of the African Americans in our midst today can point to pictures of white ancestors in their family picture albums. Yet that painful truth reveals ugly cracks. Rape. Violence. Shame.

Yet before we can talk to one another honestly, or hope to work on healing and reconciliation, we must acknowledge who has power and who does not. In our Genesis story, Joseph was a slave in Egypt. Through a fortuitous set of circumstances, he gained power. Then he abused that power through manipulation and deceit. Did he finally do the right thing? Yes. Did he ultimately give God the glory for his situation—and his ability to save his family in a time of famine? Yes. Thanks be to God. Yet Joseph’s family was fractured.

We will all go home to God. I do not doubt that. Yet for the time being, we human beings are on a journey, and we journey with each other. I have to live with the one I see in the mirror every day. I live with other human beings—people whose skin is darker than mine, people who come from different nations than my ancestors did. People of different economic backgrounds. Yet we are all, all, all, beloved children of God.

When we stand before God’s throne, God will not be impressed with color—or the lack thereof. God won’t care about creed, or economic status or political status. No.God will care whether we have loved God first, then loved our brothers and sisters second. God will care whether we fed the hungry. Cared for the poor. Sheltered the homeless. Taken care of the elderly and children. God will care if we have done to and for others what we want done to and for ourselves.

Today, August 20, 2017, in the midst of unrest, marches, protests, and counter-protests. . . in the midst of political turmoil. . .in the midst of fear and violence and death and grief, I say to you that we have long, hard work ahead of us if we are to help God to heal, to reconcile, to be agents of God’s love in this world.

What is the first step?

I believe the first step is to be honest. As a first step, hold your vase up to the light. Say yes, there’s a crack. My vase has a crack in it. And don’t put something in that vase that the vase won’t hold.  Go and look for some really expensive, precious glue. Glue that is made of honesty. Glue made of the ability to speak truth. The willingness to enter difficult conversations—especially if we are the majority culture—and to bear pain when difficult truths are spoken. Glue that is made of light and love. God’s light and love.

I do not have the answers to these difficult questions about race and privilege. All I know is that first, I must acknowledge my own place of privilege, born out of the chance circumstances of birth. Then I must be willing to engage in relationships with those who are different from me. Lastly, I must be willing to stop turning that vase up on the fire place mantel to hide the crack. I must take it down, hand it to my sister or brother, and ask them to help me mend it. And if we cannot mend the fracture with our human, broken selves, then I ask my brothers and sisters to help me hold the broken vase up to God’s light. Together, we will ask God, the Potter, to heal us all. Amen.

© The Rev. Dr. Sheila N. McJilton


[1] Cameron B.R. Howard, “Commentary on Genesis 45:1-15,” at http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2168.


[3] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/traci-blackmon-trump-lies-charlottesville_us_5994a805e4b06ef724d602de

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