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I am a lifelong musician. What that means is that on some level, music has been part of my life as long as I can remember. Ironically, I do not remember records or music on the radio being played in my childhood home. However, I remember my mother singing in the church choir (yes, I inherited her singing voice) and playing the church organ. I think Mama had some music lessons, but so much of her ability was God-given and self-taught. She could also play “by ear,” which I am not good at doing.

Both my sister and I had piano lessons for about four years, and our teacher taught us the practical aspects of a pianist, as well as some music history about various composers. Mrs. Houchins’ favorite composer was Brahms; mine has always been Bach. Always.

I studied voice, and a little organ (until I sprained my right ankle as I ran down a hill at college because I was late for a make-up call for a production I was in.) Even today, I can play a bit of piano, but only enough to decide that yes, this is a hymn I think will work for us at St. Philip’s or one I want to ask Saunders Allen about. I never loved piano. I loved other instruments more—the organ (the king of instruments, some would say) or a cello or bass or oboe.

3_featheredneststudio_notesThe Value of Notes

I remember the counting of notes. Time signatures of pieces mean something: the number of beats in a measure (the space between the bars) and the value of each note in that measure. The notation of “adagio” or “allegretto” or “largo” or “moderato” tell the musician what pace to keep. Then there are the rests. A rest tells you it is time to pause. Time not to play or sing music. And there are values for these symbols as well.

Funny, isn’t it, how some of the things you learned as a child are never forgotten. I remember that the “half rest” sat lightly on top of a line of music and the “whole rest” was heavier, so it hung below the rest. A “fermata,” which is a pause of unspecified length, was termed as “a bird’s eye” by Mrs. Houchins.

The Rest in Vivaldi’s Gloria

Not long ago, Pat and I leaned up against a wall in Trinity Cathedral in Easton (it was Standing Room Only, and we got there too late to get a seat!), listening to a volunteer choir and small orchestra sing/play Vivaldi’s Gloria. It was stunningly beautiful, and that beauty was made even more exquisite in the short pauses, the rests, between the movements. I found myself grateful that the gathered knew their music etiquette (you don’t applaud between movements of a musical work.) The pauses were as much a part of the music as the notes.

The Rest in our Lives

I think life is like music. You and I so easily forget that deliberate rest, pause, taking a good, deep breath in the midst of our busy lives is as important as the busyness. We think that the more we do, the faster we can accomplish something. Yet a few years ago, while I was on sabbatical, I began to learn that often, if I slow down and become more intentional and mindful, I actually accomplish more. This makes no logical sense. Yet it is true.

While I have come to some peace in my own heart that I will never really live a “balanced” life on some level, I have learned to decide what is essential for me to do and what is just busy work that will please someone else. That meant that I had to take some time to figure out where my own gifts and strengths were, and what others could do better than I. And that did not necessarily mean that another person with a collar, either—that meant that one of my gifts—helping lay people live more fully into your gifts and skills—would be better utilized than I had done before.

il_340x270.1617660849_mt8nThe Fermata: An Unspecified Pause

The rest between music notes also reminds me that we all need to see that “bird’s eye.” That fermata. That unspecified pause. Sometimes it is critical for our well-being (and the well-being of people we love) to stop. To say no to something we have been doing. To re-evaluate. To rest. To breathe deeply and be in a moment where we watch a bald eagle rest in a tall pine tree. To enjoy the sight of a trio of loons swimming nearby in a tranquil Canadian lake. To read a series of novels. To sit down to a leisurely meal with dear friends.

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The Rest between our Notes

Many of us are getting a chance to “rest between the notes” this summer. It may be in a cabin near a lake. It may be feeling sand and surf between your toes. It may be a trip to someplace in the Caribbean, or to Europe. You may be enjoying blueberry pancakes and hikes in Acadia in Maine. Or maybe you are just “resting between the notes” at home, doing some “honey-do” chores.  I also know that because of personal challenges, some of us are just putting one foot in front of the other and struggling to take a deep breath. If this is the case for you, I suggest that you steal some time for your own “rest,” even if it is a tiny one. Call a friend and go to the movies—and yes, splurge on the big container of buttered popcorn. Go to a baseball game or a concert with a friend. Get a 90-minute massage–good for your body and your soul. At the very least, take a refreshing, cold drink or a morning cup of hot coffee, go over to St. Philip’s and just sit—without your phone!—in the Memorial Garden. Then just BE. Breathe in the summer air. Look up and imagine animals in the cloud formations. Even fifteen or thirty minutes may be the rest you need.

God’s Rest. . .and Yours

Remember that when God created the heavens and the earth, God took a day off. The Seventh Day. Sabbath. A day of rest. Are we better than our Creator? No. So take a lesson. Rest between the notes of your life. You will be glad you did.

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

Images accessed through Google except for the first one of the pianist, which was taken by austin-pacheco-703798-unsplash.jpg. 

The last one? I took that.

#sabbath #rest #music

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Job 38:1-11 and Mark 4:35-41

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Photo by Jon Moore on Unsplash

Chaos in Today’s World

Chaos reigns these days. Chaos reigns in international commerce, with E.U. tariffs on U.S. goods. Chaos reigns in a detention center in Taylor, Texas, at the Mexican border. Chaos embroils most of Washington, D.C. Six weeks after the first eruption, chaos still reigns in Hawaii, with explosive volcanic eruptions. No doubt chaos lies ahead this summer, in the forms of hurricanes, cyclones and tornados.  Noisy chaos fills emergency rooms and trauma centers. Chaos rips families apart with division and estrangements.

What is it about all this chaos? Why does it happen? Why do good people end up in the midst of chaotic storms? Is it some kind of personal punishment for sins committed—whether known or unknown? Is it some kind of cosmic injustice, catapulted through the heavens by way of scatter-shot, sadistic acts?

If you ever wondered where holy scriptures meet real life, look no further today than at the book of Job and the Gospel of Mark.

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Chaos in the Book of Job

In an Old Testament book that likely dates back to the late sixth or early fifth century BCE, the character Job is “blameless and upright” in God’s eyes. Job had ten children: seven sons and three daughters—and in case you didn’t know it, the numbers seven and three were thought to indicate completion in the ancient world. Job had thousands of camels, oxen, donkeys, and many servants. Job was faithful to God. He said his prayers every day. He offered burnt offerings to God every day, because in that time, this was how you asked God’s forgiveness. In fact, Job offered sacrifices for himself and all his children, because he said “It may be that my children have sinned, and cursed God in their hearts.”

Job wanted to make sure he was right with God.  Yet along comes a heavenly being named “Ha-Satan.” (literal Hebrew translation)  In this instance, it is not the little man we think of with horns and a pitchfork, but the Ha-Satan. The Accuser.  In the book of Job, this is someone in God’s imperial service (you could say he’s a master spy in the process of becoming a hostile agent of God’s.) Because of “the Satan’s” taunt to God, Job finds himself in the midst of a chaotic storm. One rival tribe swoops in, kills all but one of the servants, and steals Job’s oxen and donkeys. Another servant shows up to report that the Chaldeans have raided, killed the rest of the servants and stolen the camels. Then a great wind causes the house to collapse, and all ten of Job’s children are killed. Job’s wife says “Do you still persist in your integrity? Curse God and die.” Job calls her foolish. He refuses to curse God for these horrible events.

The Accuser re-appears before God and God brags on Job. Hey, did you see my boy Job? Isn’t he great? He’s so faithful! But the Accuser taunts God: “Skin for skin! All that people have they will give to save their lives. But stretch out your hand now and touch his bone and his flesh, and he will curse you to your face.” God says, “Very well, he is in your power; only spare his life.”[1]

Thus Job finds himself covered with boils, “from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head.”[2] Job doesn’t curse God. Yet Job does curse the day he was born. He rants and rails at God. His three friends show up to sit with him, but none of them prove to be very helpful. Maybe you have all these challenges because you’ve sinned and need to repent. Maybe you’re just full of hot air and speaking foolish words. After all, you reap what you sow.

Through all this chaos, pain, grief and lack of support from people closest to him, Job defends himself—his innocence, his integrity, his right living before God—to these three supposed friends. Then Job acknowledges all the loss he has known, and begs for God’s pity and compassion. He asks his friends, “Why do you, like God, pursue me, never satisfied with my flesh?”[3] In the midst of this storm, we can imagine a sick man rising from the dirt where he sits.

He throws his arms in the air and cries out:

“O that my words were written down!

O that they were inscribed in a book!

O that with an iron pen and with lead

they were engraved on a rock forever!

For I know that my Redeemer lives,

and that at the last he will stand upon the earth;

and after my skin has been thus destroyed,

then in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see on my side,

and my eyes shall behold, and not another.”[4]

Job shakes his fist at God. Job confronts God. What have I done to deserve this? Where are you, anyway? Haven’t I walked with integrity in my life? I have been faithful to my wife. I have loved my children. I have cared for the poor, the widows, the orphans. I have not cursed others. Yet look at me! Here I am, broken, sick, the laughingstock of the village.

Finally, in the final chapters of Job, God shows up. God answers Job. Yet the answer is no answer.  God never really tells Job why all these bad things have happened. Instead, God responds out of a whirlwind, asking this: “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Gird up your loins like a man, I will question you, and you shall declare to me. Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?  Tell me, if you have understanding. . .Who laid its cornerstone when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?”

God’s answer to Job is to talk about God’s creation, its majesty, its perfection, its awesome constructs. God speaks about light, about darkness, snow, hail, wind, rain, desert, grass. .  the constellations of stars—Pleiades, Orion, the Bear—the clouds, floods of waters, lightning, the seas.  God speaks of mountain goats, deer, the wild ass and oxen, the ostrich, the horse and rider, the hawk, the eagle, the great fish—that Leviathan.

Basically, what God says to Job is this: “I am God, and you are not.”

What Job begins to understand is that no matter what happens in his life, God is there. God has created everything that Job can see. God has created everything Job cannot see, hear, touch or taste.

God is in charge. God is in everything and with everything.

God is with Job, right there in the glorious, splendid cosmos. God is with Job right there in the dust, in the grief, pain, loss and doubts.

At the end of the book of Job, Job prays for his faithless friends, and at that point, God restores Job’s fortunes. Job gets twice what he had lost. His brothers and sisters and all the friends who had deserted him return. Each friend gives Job a piece of money and a gold ring— significant gifts in that time. Job becomes prosperous again. He acquires thousands of sheep, camels, oxen and donkeys. He has seven more sons, and three more daughters. (Note: Job not only names these three daughters—which is in itself significant—he also leaves an inheritance for them as he does for their brothers. This is the only time in the Hebrew scriptures that this happens.)  Job lives to be a very old man, blessed to see four generations before his death.

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Photo by Luke Paris on Unsplash

Chaos in Mark’s Gospel

Chaos also touches real life in Mark’s gospel today. In this story, Jesus and his disciples board a boat to cross the Sea of Galilee–headed to “the other side.” (That expression doesn’t just refer to a geographical border of a lake. It means that Jesus’ ministry is getting broader—beyond his own people.)

On their way to the other side, a great windstorm arises, and waves beat mercilessly against the boat. The storm is fierce. The disciples panic. Where is Jesus? Have you seen him? Oh. There he is! Jesus is back in the stern of the boat. Peacefully asleep on a cushion. What good is he in a storm? How in the world can you sleep through such chaos?  So they shake him awake. “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”

Jesus stands up. He hears the roaring wind. He sees the waves spilling over the edges of the fishing boat. He sees the terrified faces of fishermen who know the sea, and know they are about to die if something doesn’t happen—and fast. We can imagine that “Jesus [rises] to his full height on the stern of the boat in direct confrontation with the raging sea.”[5] Jesus stretches out his arm in a commanding position. Jesus rebukes the storm—using the same word for rebuke that he used when he rebuked unclean spirits in people. “Peace! Be still!” he commands the wind and waters. In this moment, Jesus reveals his true identity to these disciples: Emmanuel. God with us. God is in the boat. The Creator of Heaven and Earth is standing, full height, arms outstretched over the seas that he has created. The created obeys the Creator. The wind ceases. A dead calm turns the raging sea to smooth glass.  The boat stops tossing and turning wildly. In seconds, all you hear is the sound of gentle waves that lap against the boat.

The disciples’ response? Literally, “they feared with a great fear.” Jesus’ disciples are in awe of what they have just witnessed. And why not? We do not ever expect the God of heaven and earth to be standing in the boat with us. Yet that is where God always is. Always.

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In the chaos of our lives. . . in our pain and grief and loss and illness. . .In the chaos of family divisions. . .In the chaos of illness, pain and Emergency Room cubicles. . .      In the chaos of moments when we must confront our own demons in order to hold friends up in their time of need. . .God is in the boat in the dark nights of our souls, when we rant and rail and shake our fist at God, demanding to know why? Why? Why did this happen? Where were you, God, when I needed you?”

God is there. God is always there. You may not hear God or see God or touch God. You may not feel God’s presence at all in the valley of the shadow of death. Yet God is there. The bottom holds, and on the bottom, there is God. I promise you that. [Photo by Kyle Head on Unsplash]

God is in the boat. God holds the boat. God is the boat.

God will carry you and me across the stormy sea, out in the darkness, in our small boats on a wide ocean. God is in the boat with us. So chaos will never reign, because God is in the boat. And it is God who will help us find our way back home. . .to God.

“As for me, I know that my Redeemer lives

and that at the last he will stand upon the earth.

After my awaking, he will raise me up; and in my body I shall see God.

I myself shall see, and my eyes behold him who is my friend, and not a stranger.”[6] Amen.

© The Rev. Dr. Sheila N. McJilton

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Photo by Alex Blăjan on Unsplash

NOTE: After preaching this sermon, I played a piece entitled “Movement V: Grace” from a CD entitled The Prayer Cycle by Jonathan Elias. The faces of people in the congregation—thoughtful, pensive, prayerful—was an image I will never forget. It was deeply moving.

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Movement V: Grace

From The Prayer Cycle, by Jonathan Elias

Father won’t you carry me

For the ocean is wide

Father, won’t you carry me

For my boat is small

 

Father on the moonless night

Help me cross the stormy sea

Out here in the darkness

Help me find my way back home

 

Father won’t you carry me

For the ocean is wide

Father won’t you carry me

For my boat is small

 

Father, in the season of dying

Let me sleep in your arms

And come watch over me

Someone watching over me, over me

 

Father won’t you carry me

Father won’t you carry me

Father won’t you carry me

 

James Taylor (English)

John Williams, Guitar

The English Chamber Chorus (Italian)

Vocal Melody by Michael Sherwood

Guitar Arrangement: Bill Kannengiser

Note: This album/CD is a choral symphony in nine movements, or what Elias refers to as “a set of nine adagio prayers.” He included musicians and artists from all over the world, including Alanis Morissette, Salif Keita, the English Chamber Orchestra, Liz Constantine, the American Boychoir, Linda Ronstadt, James Taylor, Martin Tillman and others. It was released in 1999, and included Elias’ dark visions of where we are headed globally, and of the need for hope as expressed through prayer.

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You can listen to this piece here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pE7x129N9TE

[1] Job 2:4-6.

[2] Job 2:7b.

[3] Job 19:22

[4] Job 19:23-27.

[5] John R. Donahue & Daniel J. Harrington, The Gospel of Mark (Collegeville, MD: Liturgical Press, 2002), 158 as quoted in Thomas D. Stegman’s “Exegetical Perspective” on Mark 4:35-41 in Feasting on the Gospels: Mark, Cynthia A. Jarvis & E. Elizabeth Johnson, Editors, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014), 143.

[6] From “The Burial of the Dead, Rite Two” in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer.

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Luke 24:13-35         The Road to Emmaus

st-george-klooster-judea-woestijn-israël-27292972When you are on a long journey, hospitality matters. In the Middle East, where it is hot, dry, and rugged, hospitality really matters.

A number of years ago, I went on a 28 day pilgrimage to the Holy Land with a group from Virginia Seminary. Over that time, I experienced deep and radical hospitality. The first followed a two-hour hike out of Jerusalem to the Greek Orthodox St. George’s Monastery. St. George’s is perched on the side of a steep cliff, and within the complex is a cave. This is the cave to which the Old Testament prophet Elijah is said to have fled, where he experienced earthquake, wind, fire, then finally, the still small voice of God. As we wandered around the exterior courtyards of this ancient place, we saw no one. Suddenly, a young monk appeared. Bearing a silver tray with glasses and cold water, he welcomed us all to St. George’s. Here, in an ancient place, a total stranger greeted us with radical welcome and generous hospitality.

Another day, after exploring some ruins in Samaria, our group stopped for lunch in a small local family restaurant. First, they brought us fresh, cold water. Then they served what had now become a familiar salad plate: a row of tiny, sliced cucumbers, quartered fresh tomatoes, sliced green peppers, purple cabbage, slivers of carrots and green cabbage. Bowls of green olives. (more…)

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Flowers Sm1. Grateful for the Easter Story that Unfolded Last Week. . .and the Easter Story that Continues This Week
All the Easter eggs have now been collected. Flowers are beginning to fade on the Easter cross outside St. Philip’s. We have taken down the Easter services banner from the fence. Easter must be over.
NO!  Easter, like Christmas, is a liturgical SEASON and not limited to one day. We focus on one day, but there are many more. Christmas has twelve days in its season. Easter has fifty.  Easter goes from Easter Day to the (feast) day of Pentecost, when we’ll celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit to the apostles gathered in Jerusalem.
This year, spring has been shy about showing her face. Winter seems to continue to taunt us. Yet all around us are signs of new life–flowers poking up, things blooming, and yes, folks struggling already with allergies.
As we celebrate the emergence of new life, the word GRATITUDE comes to mind.
2. Grateful for YOU at St. Philip’s Parish
There are several reasons for this gratitude. First, I am deeply grateful to all of you who worked so hard to make our Holy Week so amazing. If I begin to name people, I know I will forget someone. So I will just say that Altar Guild and Worship Committee figure heavily into my thanksgivings, as well as all of you who volunteered to read lessons and prayers.
It is true that clergy usually bear the heaviest lifting of Holy Week (what we lovingly refer to as “the Holy Week Marathon,” but equally true is that we clergy could not possibly do the best job we can do without help of a lot of people. So please know how grateful I am for the gifts so many of you have offered.
41RTjmwF9XL._AC_US436_QL65_3. A Book on Gratitude
A colleague of mine, Diana Butler Bass, has just published her new book. It is entitled Grateful: The Transformative Power of Giving Thanks. Diana began writing this book early in 2016, and through a personal struggle, finally finished it. As many writers know, the book took a different turn than she had originally envisioned. (Note: I understand this, because sometimes I have a particular focus for a sermon, and somewhere in the midst of writing it, the sermon takes a different path!)
(Note: if you’d like to check it out, or buy it, click here:
https://smile.amazon.com/Grateful-Transformative-Power-Giving-Thanks/dp/0062659472/ref=sr_1_1_sspa?ie=UTF8&qid=1522943095&sr=8-1-spons&keywords=diana+butler+bass&psc=1

lilies of the field4. Grateful for My “Emergency Contact List”
Another reason I thought about gratitude was an e-mail I received two days ago. I subscribe to emails from Coach David Girt, who owns and manages LiveNow Fitness in Elkton. (http://www.livenowfitness.com) Several of our parishioners work out there. While I chose another place for my work-outs, I still get Coach Girt’s e-mails, because I find them to be inspirational.
This week, Coach Girt said we all have a person we want to be contacted in case of emergency. Yet he expanded that list, asking some questions for me to consider:
“Who mentors you and offers a baseline of wisdom?
Who challenges you to think?
Who cheers on your dreams?
Who cares enough to admonish you?
Who is kind when you have failed?
Who shares the load in high pressure moments without being asked?
Who brings the smiles, fun, and laughter?
Who lifts you up when life is getting you down?
Who loves you unconditionally?”
As I considered David’s questions, I mentally answered these questions for myself. In doing that, I found myself thanking God for people who are there in good times, in challenging times. For people who do share the load of my life. For those who cheer me on, for those who are kind when I mess up. And this week, especially grateful for those who are supporting my taking some much-needed time off. Today, in this Easter week, as we think about new life, I invite you to answer those questions for yourself.
Then say thanks to God that you have that kind of “emergency contact list.”  God is good. The Lord is risen. New life abounds. Thank you, God.
~Sheila+

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Mark 16:1-8

images-3“So they went out and fled the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them, and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”

Terror. Amazement. Fear. Well. . . Happy Easter, everyone! You may be hearing Mark’s version of the resurrection with skepticism and doubt. Who in the world writes the greatest story ever told, then ends it with terror, amazement, fear and flight?  If this story ends in terror, fear and flight, why are we even here this morning?

If you are even a little bit disappointed, then congratulations. You just got the point of what Mark was trying to show us. So may I state the obvious? Eventually, the women do tell this story.  Peter becomes the head of the Church in Rome. James becomes the head of the Church in Jerusalem. Throughout the centuries, they, along with thousands of others, gave their lives as martyrs for the Christian faith. Men and women who believed in Jesus Christ were so passionate, they would give their very lives for the Holy One who showed us the most perfect way to God.

images-4 Yet on this Day of Resurrection, we stop for a few minutes in Mark’s gospel. We stand at an empty tomb with Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James (who could be the mother of Jesus, since one of the James was his brother), and Salome—who may have been the wife of Zebedee, the mother of another James and John. For these women, it is not Easter Sunday. It is the morning after the Sabbath. the third day after a brutal crucifixion.  Dawn brings a dreaded reality: a reality that is like a nightmare, because their Lord is gone. Within eight days, there has been a joyful Palm Sunday procession, a Last Supper, a betrayal, an arrest, a denial. They have watched a whipping, taunts, and spitting. They have watched as their Lord stumbled through the cobbled streets of Jerusalem, bearing his own instrument of death. At the end, soldiers took Jesus’ body down from a cross. Then Joseph of Arimatheaa asked Pilate for Jesus’ body. It was he who wrapped the Lord’s body in a linen cloth, then laid him in a nearby tomb.

How did they get to this place of darkness, of grief, of such deep loss? The beginning of ministry in Mark had seemed so wonderful. So hopeful. It began in Galilee, after John the Baptist baptized Jesus. Jesus’ ministry began with powerful preaching, amazing teaching, miraculous healings. (more…)

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God & Gun Violence

Monday, February 19, 2018

This morning, a parishioner sent me a message with the link below. The blog article was entitled “God, Memes, and Terrible Theology” and focused on the following meme:

IMG_0100“Dear God, Why do you allow so much violence in our schools? Signed, A Concerned Student.”

The response was “Dear Concerned Student, I am not allowed in schools. God.”

The point of the author is that so much horrible theology follows tragedy. If you want to read this article, here is the link:  https://calledsent.blogspot.com/2018/02/dear-church-we-gotta-talk-god-memes-and.html?m=1

As I thought about it, I went back to my 2007 sermon archives to find a sermon I had written and preached the Sunday after the Virginia Tech shooting tragedy, in which a young man methodically killed thirty-two of his fellow students,  then took his own life.

First of all, I wrote a poem about that tragedy. Although it is eleven years later, it seems that human beings have not learned many lessons about “respecting the dignity of every (other) human being” (quote from Holy Baptism service in the Book of Common Prayer)  In fact, you have to wonder if we’ve learned much at all that is good and positive, anything of which God would be proud. I’ve lost count of the violent mass shootings in the United States since that fateful cold, gray, April day in Blacksburg, Virginia.

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Here is the poem:

April Gun Metal Morning

(Dedicated to the Virginia Tech Hokie Nation)

I am Resurrection and I am Life, says the Lord.

Whoever has faith in me shall have life,

Even though he die.

And everyone who has life,

And has committed himself to me in faith,

Shall not die forever.[1]

 

Against April gun metal morning sky,

Snow flakes swirl, dip, dance.

Patches of crimson color move slowly.

Hooded, heads bent, blue-jeaned Hokie nation

Clutch coffee and books, bound to learn

ElementaryGermanIntermediateFrench

SolidMechanicsAdvanced Hydrology.

 

As for me, I know that my Redeemer lives

And that at the last he will stand upon the earth.

After my awaking, he will raise me up;

And in my body I shall see God.

I myself shall see, and my eyes behold him

Who is my friend and not a stranger.

 

Against April gun metal morning sky,

A solitary silent man in tan and black

Chooses a final path to destruction.

Two lives taken, thirty-one left,

He prowls with stealth. Determination. Focus.

Snow flakes swirl, dip, dance

He does not notice their grace, their beauty, their lightness of being.

 

For none of us has life in himself,

And none becomes his own master when he dies.

For if we have life, we are alive in the Lord,

And if we die, we die in the Lord.

So, then, whether we live or die,

We are the Lord’s possession.

 

Against April gun metal morning sky,

Norris Hall is secured. Chained. Ready for death.

Shots puncture peace in methodical madness.

Heads bend, bodies fall, coffee spills.

Crimson stained a blue-jeaned nation,

Spreads from one life to another.

Connects the living with the dead.

 

Lord, have mercy upon us.

Chris, have mercy upon us.

Lord, have mercy upon us.

 

Against April gun metal afternoon sky,

Wailing of mothers rips hearts open.

Anguish of fathers bruises souls.

Stunned silence of friends hangs suspended in cold air.

The early morning beauty of snowflakes explodes into crimson.

And the sweet souls of the innocent dance unexpectedly

From earth’s chains into the incredible lightness of heaven.

 

Happy from now on

Are those who die in the Lord!

So it is, says the Spirit,

For they rest from their labors.

The Rev. Sheila N. McJilton                    18 April, 2007.

[1] From “The Burial of the Dead” in The 1979 Book of Common Prayer.

 

VIRGINIA-TECH-SHOOTING-candlelight-vigil

Second, on the Sunday after the Virginia Tech tragedy, I preached the following sermon to parishioners at St. David’s Episcopal Church in Wilmington, DE, where I served as Interim Rector. As I have re-read it, I feel sad that my thoughts still apply, that we are no further down the road of peace, reconciliation and better ways to address both gun violence and mental health issues. And I still feel the same need to build up the faith of your children and young people in specific ways, because their world is still precarious and dangerous.

Easter 3, Yr C                                                 April 22, 2007

Reading:  Acts 9:1-20

Saul was a man on a mission. Convinced that he possessed the truth with a capital T, he set off on a murderous rampage. His goal? To bring followers of Jesus Christ to Jerusalem, to face religious persecution. Suddenly, on the road to Damascus, Saul was blinded by a dazzling light. After an unexpected and powerful encounter with the risen Christ, Saul’s life completely changed. In fact, it changed so dramatically, Saul changed his name to Paul, and the apostle Paul would spend the rest of his life as a witness to the love and life of Jesus Christ.

In the news this past week, we have heard about another man on a mission. Cho Seung-hui, a Virginia Tech student, believed that he possessed truth. Despite the bizarre multi-media manifesto that Cho mailed to NBC News, we will never know just what his mission was—other than some kind of delusional revenge. On Monday morning, this young man, armed with chains, knives, two semi-automatic pistols and a backpack full of ammunition, slaughtered thirty-two of his fellow students and teachers, then took his own life.

What was the difference between Saul, blinded by the light of Christ on a dusty road, and Cho Seung-hui, blinded by his own mental issues? Both believed they had the Truth with a capital T. Yet on the road to Damascus, the light of the risen Christ changed the life of Saul. No one reported seeing a divine light in Norris Hall at Virginia Tech last Monday. Where was God on Monday morning with those students and teachers? Why did God not send a divine light to blind a killer on the loose?

There are many questions in our hearts about this tragedy. I have wept as I watched and listened to the sights and sounds of senseless violence that has wrenched innocent people of all ages, all faiths and all cultures away from their families. And I have wondered how we know the difference between a vision of truth and an illusion of truth. What happens when the blinding light is from evil, not from good? How do we know the difference?

I wonder if community has something to do with this. When we hear the story of Saul today, we see that his repentance, his conversion, and the beginnings of his Christian faith did not take place in isolation. After this dazzling encounter with Christ blinded him, someone took care of him for three days. Then Ananias came to minister to him, to pray with him. Afterwards, Saul stayed with that Christian community. The power, the strength, and the support of this community of faith moved all of them beyond individual truth to a greater one. And it was out of the greater truth and love of Jesus Christ that these apostles changed the world. However, had truth not been worked out over time, in the context of community, our Christian faith would not be as strong as it is today. Why? Because as we live in community, we discuss, we argue, we ask questions. Sometimes we agree. Sometimes we disagree strongly. Yet we are family, united by, and grounded in, our faith in the risen Christ. Whatever our differences, we honor each other, we love each other, and we stumble together along our journey of life.

I thought about community this week when I heard about a mentally unbalanced young man who lived totally inside himself. Cho refused to abide by professors’ guidelines in class. He behaved in anti-social ways. He rejected help for his mental and emotional issues. He refused to engage in any kind of real community with professors, students, even his suite mates. Cho believed that he possessed some kind of truth, but that truth lived inside him. He never tested his inner reality with that of the community around him. Now given the information which has emerged in the last few days, it is likely that this young man was incapable of being in community. He was just too ill—and had been so for all of his life.

So is it possible that compassion and community work best in a more ideal world? The preacher does not have this answer. All she knows is that unfortunately, you and I do not live in an ideal world. Every day, we are reminded of that truth. Every day, thousands of our brothers and sisters lose their lives. Whether on an American college campus, a Baghdad neighborhood, a dusty road in Darfur or a refugee camp in Palestine, thousands of our brothers and sisters die in acts of violence. All we have to do is to open the newspaper or look online to see this truth. We do not live in paradise. We lost that world a long time ago. No, we live in a broken, sinful world where evil wins too often. Young people die too soon.

And so especially this week, we have more questions than answers. I did not personally know any of those young people or professors who died. I do not see my own son’s picture all over the internet or newspapers. Yet you and I are deeply connected to each one of them—just as we are connected to those parents who grieve this morning in Baghdad, or Darfur, or Palestine, or anywhere else in the world where people bury their loved ones today. God’s children are all connected in a community. For some of us, that is a community of faith. So even when we have more questions than answers, we are not alone. We have each other, and God is there in the midst of us.

My friends, God is always there in the midst of suffering. God was with Adam and Eve the day their buried their son Abel after his brother Cain murdered him. God was with Job when he buried everyone one of his sons and daughters, then sat in the dust and suffered with boils. God was with Jesus as he suffered on the cross on Good Friday. Throughout the story of God’s people, God has been there in suffering. On Monday morning, God was there at Virginia Tech. God was there with students who protected each other with their very bodies; who used their own hoodies to fashion tourniquets for one another; who held doors shut with their feet or with tables. God was there with Professor Librescue, a seventy-six year old Holocaust survivor, when he gave his own life to protect his students. God was there as police officers, emergency technicians, doctors, nurses, and chaplains responded with compassion and skill. God was there as one young man returned again and again to Norris Hall, carrying the bodies of his classmates out and laying them on the grass. When asked why he was doing that, he replied, “Well, somebody had to do it.”[1] God was there in the midst of a grieving community in Blacksburg, Virginia this week. God is here today, in the prayers, the compassion, the love of God’s people—all over this nation and this world.

We Christians believe that physical, human death—no matter how it comes—is not the end of our story. That is because Jesus’ death on a cross was not the end of the story.I am Resurrection and I am Life, says the Lord. Whoever has faith in me shall have life, even though he die. And everyone who has life, and has committed himself to me in faith, shall not die forever.[2]  Yes!  And: “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and giving life to those in the tomb.”[3]

 Yet we, like Saul on the road to Damascus, must choose to participate in this resurrection life. After we encounter the risen Christ in our lives, we must be willing to live our lives differently. This means commitment to a life of faith. This means that as parents, we bring our children to church regularly so that when they face dark times, they will have a solid spiritual foundation. They will know right from wrong. They will have a reservoir of spiritual strength from which to draw. We do not want the first time our children to utter a real prayer is on a Monday morning as they push their feet against a classroom door to keep a killer out.  So if we are to give our children more than a token social dose of Christianity, we have a responsibility to bring them into Christian community every Sunday. We have a responsibility to help teach them.

True Christian faith is not lived out in solation. True faith is living out within a community that pushes against us. Teaches us. Shapes us. Ultimately, one that stands with us in unconditional love. And where deep and abiding love remains, there is God. Today, with deep and abiding love, may we pray for all of God’s children who have lost their lives this week—from Iraq to Palestine to Darfur to Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia. May all of them rest in peace and rise in glory. And at the last day, may all of God’s children stand around the throne to worship the God who created us as God’s family. Amen.

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

[1] From a story told by Bishop George Packard to the Diocese of Delaware Convention on April 20, 2007.

[2] From “The Burial of the Dead: Rite Two” in The 1979 Book of Common Prayer, 491.

[3] Ibid., 500.

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Epiphany 4, Year B                                             January 28, 2018

Holy Baptism of Beau Sterling Graham

“Will you be responsible for seeing that the child you present is brought up in the Christian faith and life?”[1]

This morning, we welcome family and friends who have gathered to celebrate the sacrament of Holy Baptism for Beau Sterling Kirby. For those of you who do not know, Liz Newcomb Kirby grew up at St. Philip’s. Graham hails from Virginia, and I had the joy of officiating at their marriage a few years ago. Like many here, the circle of life continues, and today is a joyful day.  I would also like to note, for visitors and newcomers, that we have been doing a special message series during this Epiphany season—a Harry Potter series. While I generally focus on scripture readings for a sermon, today, there is only one verse among the four readings that really apply to today’s reflection: Psalm 111, verse 10:

“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; all those who practice it have a good understanding.” [2]

So an awe of God, who creates us all, who redeems us all and who sustains us all, is something that I believe we are born with. The evidence for that is that not every time, but many times, in the moments just after I have poured water on a baby’s head three times in the sacrament of Holy Baptism, that child gets a faraway look in his or her eyes, and looks past me. Not at me. Past me. Sometimes I have looked over my left shoulder. No one standing there. So say what you will, but I believe that child remembers, maybe actually see, some recent, mysterious connection to God and to Home—that eternal and true Home from which we all come. To which we will all return. I believe that when we baptize an infant or toddler, they still understand the Psalmist’s mystery and awe. In fact, I suspect babies or toddlers still carry more than a little of God’s wisdom in their tiny bodies.

I turn now to the Book of Common Prayer, because today, I want to emphasize the truth that what we do here today in this sacrament is not a casual matter, not just a photo opp for baptismal gowns, delicious cake, and a family dinner. Holy Baptism is serious business. We do not “manage” it. We do not wave a wizard’s wand and proclaim, “There. Baptism managed. The Christian faith managed. Now, what’s next?”  No.

unnamed            Baptism is a serious—even dangerous—act of faith that we embody for ourselves or for our children. If we take baptism seriously, we must understand that words matter. Actions matter. In this service, we “renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God.” We “turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as [our] Savior.” We “promise to follow and obey him” as our Lord. Those are strong, courageous words. Those words, spoken out loud, heard and witnessed by a community of faith, are also potentially dangerous, because they signal that this child is transformed. Changed. So we never know what might happen next in God’s kingdom when God transforms people. Expect the unexpected, I say.

We Christians believe that when we follow the example of Jesus of Nazareth into the waters of baptism, that changes us. From that moment on, we belong to Jesus. We follow Jesus. We no longer ask “What would Jesus do?” We learn what Jesus did with his own light and love. Then we just go out and do the same thing—in our own broken, human ways, of course.  How we learn to follow Jesus is, of course, not contained in the few moments of Holy Baptism. It is a lifetime journey that requires practice, nurture, support, challenge. Not just by parents or grandparents, either. Godparents play a critical role here.

Best-Dumbledore-Quotes            One of my clergy colleagues and friends has written an excellent book entitled Teaching Faith with Harry Potter. In this book, Tricia Lyons notes that there is a crisis of godparenting across all denominations in the United States.[3] What does she mean?  Example: If you are, or have been a godparent, please raise your hand. Next question: “Are you proud of how you have godparented? Is it an active part of your faith life?”[4] If the answer to those questions is a rather shame-faced “No,” then do not fear. Tricia insists that the church has let you all down, because we have no ongoing formation for people in the pews about how that happens. More on that in a minute.

For the moment, I turn to Harry Potter for some amazing examples of godparenting. Did you realize that “the word godparent is mentioned over fifty times in the seven [Harry Potter] books”?[5] J.K. Rowling never mentions anything resembling a religious connection to this role; however, many people are godparents to Harry.

benjamin-dickerhof-290634          The first, very negative, example, is the Dursley family. Because Petunia Dursley is Lily Potter’s sister, this family has become Harry’s “Muggle”guardians, and he must live with them during holidays. However, the Dursleys are unloving, negligent, and abusive. For example, in Book Five, The Order of the Phoenix, we read this description of Harry: “He was a skinny, black-haired, bespectacled boy who had the pinched, slightly unhealthy look of someone who has grown a lot in a short space of time. His jeans were torn and dirty, his T-shirt baggy and faded, and the soles of his trainers were peeling away from the uppers.”[6] Hardly a description of a child who is loved and nurtured, right?

Nimbus_2000_1          Who are Harry Potter’s true godparents—the ones who are faithful, strong, courageous, and present to him, no matter what? In the Chamber of Secrets, Harry finds out that Sirius Black is his official godfather. In the Prisoner of Azkaban, Sirius sends a Firebolt racing broom as a Christmas present. At that point, Sirius sends it anonymously, yet it is just what his young godson most wants, if Harry is to become a successful Seeker in Quidditch matches.  Later, when Harry does learn who his godfather is, he depends on Sirius to show up, to give him good counsel, to be dependable and loving. Yet Sirius Black is not the only godparent Harry has. It takes more than one person to help support, nurture, and teach young Harry.

The same is true in our Christian faith practices. For example, in the baptism service in our Book of Common Prayer[7], I ask parents and godparents for specific answers to specific questions that involve repentance, turning, following. Then I turn to the faithful who are gathered and ask: “Will you who witness these vows do all in your power to support this child in his/her life in Christ?” Hopefully, when we get to that place this morning, I will get an enthusiastic response.

It takes a village to raise a child. It takes a Christian village to raise a Christian child. In Harry Potter’s village, he has many significant people who are faithful and loyal to raising him.

Minerva            One is Minerva McGonagall, the stern, not-to-be-fooled-with Transfiguration teacher who finds subtle ways to support Harry. Another is Professor Albus Dumbledore, the Headmaster of Hogwarts. In a scene in the Chamber of Secrets, Lucius Malfoy is about to take Dumbledore away from Hogwarts. Dumbledore pauses just before leaving Hagrid’s cottage. He looks towards Harry, Hermione and Ron, all hidden under the Invisibility Cloak. Dumbledore says, slowly and deliberately: “You will also find that help will always be given at Hogwarts to those who ask for it.”[8] Throughout Rowling’s books, Dumbledore is a wise, dependable father figure for Harry. Yet there are more people in Harry’s village who love him, who are “stand up” kinds of people.

In the book I mentioned earlier, Tricia Lyons writes about a powerful godparenting scene that is not one we would ordinarily think of as godparenting. In chapter Four of The Deathly Hallows, Harry needs to be transported to a safe house before his seventeenth birthday. For upon the date of his seventeenth birthday, the rare protective magic that has surrounded the Dursley home will expire. Harry’s life is in danger. One night, a group of friends—members of the Order of the Phoenix—show up at 4 Privet Drive. Their plan to protect Harry during transit is that six of them will drink Polyjuice potion in order to turn into Harry Potters. Then there will be seven Harry Potters, not just one, and hopefully, Voldemort and his followers will be fooled.

856f3e68-e32c-4419-b9c1-a62bc6eb3959_560_420            Mad-Eye Moody, one of these six, and the eldest, warns that “the dangers are real and lives could be lost.”[9] Ironically, in the ferocious battle which ensues, Moody himself is killed, as is Harry’s beloved owl, Hedwig. George’s left ear is irreparably wounded. Hagrid is knocked out. When the group finally reaches safety at the Weasley home—stunned, weary and injured—they are all greeted by yet another of Harry’s godparents:  Molly Weasley. Molly has not physically been with the group as they rescued Harry.Instead, she “is waiting breathlessly, faithfully, hopefully, and prayerfully at the Burrow,” She has kept the light on, left the door open, kept nourishing food ready, and watches the horizon, “ready to run toward anyone walking toward her, not unlike the father of the prodigal son.” [10]

“Will you be responsible for seeing that the child you present is brought up in the Christian faith and life?. . .Will you by your prayers and witness help this child to grow into the full stature of Christ?” These questions are critical questions to raising someone in a life of faith. What is required of us—all of us—is doing specific things for the children for whom we take responsibility—whether we are official godparents or not.

We may give them presents, but we must also give them presence.[11] We give them presence by teaching them. Parents teach them by making a commitment when you wrestle sleepy children out of bed on a Sunday morning—despite protests. You grab a quick breakfast (or eat in the car), get them dressed, trying your best to get them to Sunday School by 9:00. That may not look like a gift-present, but trust me, it will be over a lifetime of faith development.

Parents, grandparents and godparents can commit to teaching children the Lord’s Prayer and the 23rd Psalm. Both are pieces of scripture. You can teach them—by example—how to hold hands and say a prayer of thanksgiving before a meal. You can sit with them as they go to bed, encouraging them to say a prayer before going to sleep. Children learn by doing, and by supporting them in these faith practices, we help nurture, strengthen—yes, even challenge them in a life that says yes, I am committed to following Jesus Christ.

No one waves a magic wand and becomes a good Christian person. That is not some magical moment. It is a lifetime journey, one that calls us to practice, as you would practice a sport or as you would practice the skills you use in your daily work lives.

Remember how clumsy or slow you were when you were just learning a new sport—like baseball or lacrosse? Remember the number of wrong notes you hit as you practiced a musical instrument? Or how, just out of your degree program, you took halting steps in your chosen vocation? You aren’t supposed to be perfect at this Christian life either. You practice. Over and over and over again. And none of us gets it “right” until the moment we get Home.

AlbusDumbledore           In the meantime, we ask for help, and we get help. For Albus Dumbledore spoke Truth in at least two different places. First he told Harry, “You will also find that help will always be given at Hogwarts to those who ask for it.” At the end of Part Two of The Deathly Hallows, Dumbledore meets Harry beyond the point of earthly life. Both are dressed in white. They face each other on a white train platform at Kings Crossing. Dumbledore changes the quote now, telling Harry, “I would amend my original statement. Help would always be given, at Hogwarts,

to those who deserve it.” Then he continues, “Do not pity the dead, Harry. Pity the living. Above all, those who live without love.”[12]

On this day of Holy Baptism, live with love. Unconditional, nurturing, courageous love. Remember that in God’s eyes, we are all God’s beloved sons and daughters. We all deserve God’s love, because we are part of God and God is part of us.

Now, all godparents, please stand up. Now, even if you are not an official godparent, please stand up.

I hereby challenge you, in the sacred Order of Jesus Christ, to renew your own faith this day, to step up, to be present to all who need your godparenting skills and love. If you do that, I promise that not only will someone else’s life be transformed. So will yours. Amen.

© The Rev. Dr. Sheila N. McJilton

[1] From the service of Holy Baptism in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, 302.

[2] Psalm 111:10.

[3] Patricia M. Lyons, Teaching Faith with Harry Potter: A Guidebook for Parents and Educators for Multigenerational Faith Formation, (New York: Church Publishing, 2017), 130.

[4] Ibid., 130.

[5] Ibid., 132.

[6] J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, (New York: Scholastic Press, Inc., 2003), 1.

[7] From the service of Holy Baptism in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, 302-303.

[8] J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter & the Chamber of Secrets, (Scholastic Press, 1998), ch. 14.

[9] Idem, Teaching Faith with HP, 137.

[10] Ibid, 139.

[11] Lisa Kimball, “Being Godparent: A Dialogical Hermeneutic Study of Godparenthood” (PhD diss., University of Minnesota, 2007), 84-88. Referenced in Lyon’s book Teaching Faith with Harry Potter.

[12] J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter & the Deathly Hallows, Part II (Scholastic Publishing, 2007), ???.

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