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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.

david-beale-194104

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.

 

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

sarah-dorweiler-211779Intro

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).

1280px-ISS035-E-007148_Nile_-_Sinai_-_Dead_Sea_-_Wide_Angle_View

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.

gen18-chagall

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

 

 

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.

Continue Reading »

            Today, on Trinity Sunday, let’s go back a couple of months—back to the Day of Resurrection. In the section of scripture immediately preceding today’s gospel, we have Matthew’s account of the resurrection. An angel greets Mary Magdalene and the other Mary. First, the angel says “Do not be afraid.” Then the angel says, “I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples: ‘He has risen from the dead and is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him. Now I have told you.’” The women run back to tell the eleven disciples what the angel has said.

A few verses later, we get today’s gospel. Now I invite you to look at your bulletin and look at the version I just read to you, while I read it in a different translation. This is one of the literal translations of the Greek.

Yet the eleven disciples went into Galilee to the mountain which Jesus appointed to them, and having seen [him] they worshiped [him], yet they doubted. And having approached, Jesus spoke to them while saying, “All authority in heaven and on [the] earth was given to me. Therefore, having gone, disciple all the nations, while baptizing them in the name of the father and the son and the holy spirit, while teaching them to attend to all that I commanded to you; and behold I am with you all the days even to the completion of the age.[1]

Continue Reading »

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alejandro-escamilla from http://www.unsplash.com

Last Thursday, I was at the Shell gas station at the corner of 198 & 1 in Laurel, taking advantage of the .05 off on Thursdays. As I pumped gas, a car pulled up in front of me. The gentleman who got out to pump his gas was wearing a white tunic, white loose, flowing pants, and a pair of pull-on shoes.  His skin was dark, and from his appearance, I guessed that he was originally from India or Pakistan.

I headed inside to the cashier (I never seem to have any luck getting my Giant bonus points to register without help!). The man’s name there is Salim. As usual, he greeted me warmly. After I had paid, I asked, “Are you observing Ramadan?” He looked a bit surprised, then smiled and said “Yes.” I put my hands in prayer position (“Namaste” position, if you’re familiar with yoga) and said, “A blessed Ramadan to you.”  He beamed, and I walked out.

As I walked to my car, I noticed an African American woman putting gas in her car. Yet what I really noticed was her bumper sticker. It read “Racism is our national disease.”  In that moment, her eyes caught mine. I gestured to her bumper sticker and said simply, “Powerful message there.” She smiled. I said, “You’re a brave woman.” I got another smile, and I went on my way.

Continue Reading »

EmptyCross_webready_3

It is just a piece of wood.

Something nondescript to be

Carved into things.

 

A cradle.

A table.

A cross.

 

Maybe Mary wondered

All those years ago

As she leaned over

That rough cradle.

Wondered why every time

She touched it,

Something burned

In her heart.

A question.

A nagging question.

A memory that hung

Elusive, just beyond her reach

Like a dream that disappears

As you awaken in the morning.

You know it was real, it’s that

You cannot catch that elusive

Wisp of memory.

 

Today in Jerusalem,

People jostle, mill around,

Then in silence,

They move to the edges

Of cobblestoned streets.

It is a holiday.

But as they watch

The piece of wood bump

Slowly

Painfully

Through narrow streets,

They do not feel joy.

No.

They feel uneasy.

A question burns in their hearts.

A nagging question

That is unanswered

 

Except by the bumps of

Rough wood on stones,

The groans of the one

Who bears a piece of wood

That was once

Nondescript

And now has been

Cut, planed, carved

Into an instrument

Of pain, torture, execution.

 

He drags this piece of wood

On raw, bleeding shoulders

Until he falls under its weight.

A soldier yells at a foreigner

To come and carry the cross.

He is a foreigner.

No power. No voice.

So he sighs and takes the weight

Onto himself.

 

Together, they manage.

The stranger bears a cross

He never asked to bear.

The half-dead prince stumbles

The last mile to

His own death.

 

It is not until the soldiers

Take the wood from the stranger

That he feels something

Burn in his heart.

A question.

A nagging question.

A memory that hangs

Like elusive dream at dawn.

 

When he straightens up,

And the soldiers push the prisoner

Towards the rough wood

One last time,

He turns to meet the piercing stare

Of a woman.

 

Her friends hold her up.

Her eyes speak more pain than

He ever wants to know.

Her eyes burn his soul

He knows that her arms

Have held the world.

 

On his last day, when

Simon draws his last ragged breath,

He will remember

That piercing stare.

That burning in his heart,

That nagging question.

 

Elusive memory

Will resolve in fine focus,

The picture finally complete.

 

Cradle.

Table.

Cross.

 

The instrument of death holds the pain

Of innocent children

Of mothers’ arms in the night

Of prisoners at the last.

The Mother of All Wood.

 

Some people hate pain

And run from it.

Others embrace its

Cold wild waves.

They welcome

The Mother of Death

As friend in one

Final

Cruciform

Answer.

Cross at end of Maundy Thursday

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

April 14, 2017

Care for Creation

“You exist more truly where you love than where you merely live.”  Bonaventure

It’s always interesting to me how things in life coincide at odd moments.

1. This week, I have been reading a compelling book: Care for Creation: A Franciscan Spirituality of the Earth. Although I’ve only read half of it, that is enough to recommend it. More on this reading in a moment.
2. On April 22, many people will celebrate Earth Day 2017 in various ways. (To learn more:http://www.earthday.org/)

3.  This Saturday is Annual Patuxent River Cleanup Day in Laurel. Local folks have a chance to do something real for the community where we live (and love), and if you’re a student, you can get some community service hours.

4. This morning, I went to More Than Java Cafe on Main Street in Laurel and parked on a nearby side street. As I got out of the car, I noticed what I often notice if I do my afternoon walks: litter.Lots of litter. (Picture of litter accessed from Google images.)  Later, someone reminded me that litter is usually trash deliberately thrown in the street or gutter. Rain or wind has blown trash out of receptacles waiting for pickup, or from public trashcans.That was a helpful reminder, because as I saw the mess, I thought, “Well, this isn’t a pretty sight if folks come to Main Street to shop or go to a coffee shop.”

5. Last Sunday, a parishioner asked me why we are using Styrofoam plates and bowls for coffee hour refreshments. I told him I didn’t know, but perhaps we should prevail on folks NOT to buy Styrofoam plates, bowls or cups any more. If our planet lasts a thousand more years, these will still be around, because Styrofoam does not disintegrate.

Back to Care for Creation. We’ve been asking this lately at St. Philip’s:

What does God have to do with care for creation? A lot. This book makes it clear that with the above comments, I am not just some “tree-hugger” (although I am okay  that title.) The creation around us is God’s creation. St. Francis recognized this more than just about any other human being has. In a real sense, creation–earth, sky, seas, animals and plants–speaks to us of God, and God speaks through these created things or beings. “Creation. . .means relationships between the human and non-human created order, the place of the human person within that order, and the response of the person to the created order in its relationship to God.”

An “environmental crisis” is a “religious crisis.” Why? Because we are intricately involved with earth for which God has called us to care. Rather than the traditional interpretation of human beings having “dominion” over all other created life forms, the original Hebrew should be translated as “to serve and preserve” these life forms. Simply put, you and I are stewards. We don’t own the earth. We have no business trashing her. In fact, because we are blessed with higher cognitive function (or I hope so), we have greater responsibility than the ants, or earthworms, or polar bears, or fields of crops.

Last week, I read in the newspaper that North Korea has carved out tunnels. It is believed that they are, or might be soon, testing nuclear missiles in such tunnels. I was horrified. What would be the consequences of such testing? Do people really believe that there are none, or do they not care? To put those toxins into soil, to dislodge earth. . .I shudder to think of earthquakes, or tsunamis, or other environmental disturbances that are possible–and we might never connect one with the other.

As we think about how we follow Jesus during this Lenten season, we watch trees and other plants flower and bloom. As we enjoy greening grass, spring sun and warmer temperatures, gets green, think about how you can deepen your relationship with the Creator by taking better care of resources. Recycle. Compost. Take your own thermal coffee mug to your favorite coffee shop. Pack your own lunch–in a re-usable container. Turn off power strips and use less electricity at home. Adjust your thermostat a few degrees to save energy. Whatever you do, remember that the earth in which we live is not ours. It’s just ours to tend for a very short while.

Nature is “a sacramental expression of God’s generous love.” Enjoy that love–and return it to the earth from which we came, the earth to which we will all return. “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

 

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