Safe in the palm of God’s wild hand

This week we talked about what it means to belong to God, to be claimed by the Good Shepherd.  How we are safe and secure in the palm of God’s hand, and no one can snatch us away–BUT our God is a wild God.  We are safe in the wilderness.

Listen here.

Preached at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Atlanta.

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Lessons in dying

A Good Friday meditation on Jesus’ words in Luke 23:39-43, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.”

One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah?  Save yourself and us!”  But the other rebuked him saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation?  And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.”  Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”  Jesus replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

It is never too late for us, and it is never too late for God.  The collect we just read together points to the truth that Jesus is still loving, still teaching, still promising to be present to the sinner hanging on the cross beside him—even at the hour of death.  It is never too late for us, and it is never too late for God.

You might be surprised to find that some of the most precious moments of a priest’s life are spent at the bedside of those nearing death and dying.  This truth is not borne out of a morbid fascination, but out of the realness and vulnerability present at death, creating an intimacy that is difficult to articulate beyond the moment itself.

Four years ago, I experienced a particularly poignant week of death during Lent.  Three people who were dear to me died in the span of seven days.  First, Henry—a 10-month old baby who we had been praying for since before his birth.  Henry was a twin, born with only half a functioning heart.  His parents and the doctors knew before he was born that his first moments of life would be risky moments of surgery and hope.  The first pictures we saw of Henry were of a tiny, beautiful boy, breathing tubes in his nose and a vertical scar across his chest.  Those preliminary surgeries were just a temporary fix until his could receive a heart transplant.  At four months, Henry received the gift of life through the heart of a toddler girl who had died in a car accident.  It was a painful rejoicing.  An answer to prayers difficult to pray.  Eventually he came home to his family and his twin sister, finally strong enough to live without the assistance of machinery.  And then one day, his body rejected his heart.  He had given life all that he could, given us all that he could.  Ten months may not seem like much, but I can tell you as the mother of a ten-month old right now that ten months is a lifetime.  Henry, in his dying, taught us how to always live on the precipice of life—on the very edge of hope.  He taught us how to inspire love without words.  He taught us the ministry of presence, for that is all he had, and it was more than enough.

Henry’s funeral was on a Saturday morning.  From his funeral I drove to the home of my friend Aimee, dying of colon cancer.  Aimee was lying in a hospital bed in her living room, unconscious and surrounded by family.  She would die the next day—a Sunday.  Two years earlier, Aimee’s husband and I had sat down with their two daughters to tell them their mom had cancer.  You see, Aimee was one of my closest friends, but she was also my colleague on staff at church, which meant that I was a youth minister to both her girls.  It was hard for all of us on staff to grieve the loss of our friend while also ministering to the parish we cared for.  That first night after Aimee died, her husband handed each of their daughters a box of sealed letters.  Each envelope was labeled with a certain occasion Aimee knew she might miss: Graduation, Your first heartbreak, Your first time having sex, When your dad falls in love again, Your wedding, Your first child.  One of her daughters ripped every envelope open, pouring over the words of her mother all at once.  Her other daughter opened only one envelope labeled: When I die.  Aimee, in her dying, taught us about selflessness.  She died her death in the same way she lived her life—mindful of what others might need and how she could best serve them.  Her death was like an exclamation point on an already loud life full of loud love.

From Aimee’s funeral, I went to the bedside of my friend Milton.  Milton was the father of my best friend, and he was dying of brain cancer.  Milton’s nick-name was “Magic.”  He was well beloved in the community for his contribution to the arts, but he was well beloved to me for his thoughtful and challenging conversations about faith.  Milton was an atheist.  Not an angry atheist, but a clever and caring one.  And really, I don’t think ‘atheist’ is an appropriate term to describe him—he talked way too much about faith not to espouse it himself.  He was a lifelong learner, always open to teaching and being taught, a truth that shined through in our conversations.  Not many people got to sit with Milton in his dying, but I did.  And when I asked him if I could pray with and for him, he nodded his head, yes.  He knew it was my language of love, and he let it wash over him as a loving recipient.  Milton, in his dying, taught us how to depart in dignity.  He helped us to find beauty in his death, even commissioning pottery pieces to be glazed and fired with his ashes—vibrant red candlesticks and vessels.  And he taught me the grace of letting love come in whatever form it will.

Before Jesus was resurrected, he was dead.  And before Jesus was dead, he was dying.  Jesus, in his dying, tells the penitent sinner, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.”  And the implications of his response are this: You are forgiven, you are loved, death cannot separate you from me or my love, I am with you now and will be with you to the end and beyond.

Nothing is too much for Jesus—not the brokenness of the sinner hanging beside him, not the brokenness of his own body nailed to a cross, not the brokenness of the world that put him there.

It is never too late for us, and it is never too late for God.

We do not get to sit at the bedside of a dying Jesus, we do not get to hold his hand and wait for the kind of wisdom only death can impart.  Instead we wait at the foot of the cross.  It is a gruesome and uncomfortable place to wait.  It is, for me, the most uncomfortable time of Holy Week.

And yet Jesus, in this most excruciating moment, speaks of paradise.  Jesus, in the midst of torture and wrongful death, meets us with love and invitation.  Jesus, ever the teacher, spends his last words on us, that his dying may teach us how to live.

My brothers and sisters: It is never too late for us, because it is never too late for God.

Amen.

#blacklivesmatter too

Sometimes, the young white clergy woman gets asked to preach on Absolom Jones Sunday.

Preached from white privilege–Listen here.

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The Pregnant Church

My first sermon preached in my new parish: St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Atlanta

Advent 4–Listen here.

This week last year, I preached this very Gospel text in a different pulpit.  I’ll admit today’s reading is a favorite of mine.  But preaching this text last year was especially memorable because it was in that sermon that I shared with my then-parish that Jay and I were fourteen weeks pregnant.  This year, instead, I am so excited to share the news: YOU are pregnant.  You are!

One of my favorite mystics, Meister Eckhart, says: We are all called to be mothers of God, for God is always waiting to be born.  Isn’t that a beautiful reality to contemplate?  We are all called to be mothers of God, for God is always waiting to be born.

And with that reality comes this truth as well: You are blessed and highly favored.

Can you imagine a world where every person was treated as if they were blessed and highly favored?  Imagine what it would look like if we treated everyone known and unknown to us as if they were pregnant with God—or even how we might treat ourselves if we truly believed that we too were mothers of a God waiting to be born.

I’m tempted to end my sermon here so we can walk around this sanctuary and practice greeting one another with this truth in our hearts.  [Turn to your neighbor and tell them they are blessed and highly favored]… But first I think some words of context might help this exercise.

First—a word about Mary’s song.

This song that Mary sings might be familiar to you.  The “Magnificat” is often read in our liturgy or sung by our choir.  Indeed the words of Mary’s song have been put to countless tunes in every language.  As familiar as it may be to us, the words were even more commonplace to Mary’s contemporaries.  You see, a very similar song appears in 1 Samuel when Hannah learns she too is with child.  And anyone who studied Hebrew scripture, Mary included, would have found Hannah’s song to be familiar.  God gave Mary the words she needed before she even knew she needed them.

My soul magnifies the Lord.

My spirit rejoices in God my savior.

My God is strong.

My God scatters the proud.

My God is lifting up the lowly.

My God is feeding the hungry.

And surely, Hannah’s words and Mary’s words shaped Jesus—who, like his mother, quoted the Hebrew scripture when in his first public address he said:

The Spirit of God is upon me. 

God is caring for the poor.

God sets the captive free.

God lifts up the lowly.

God is restoring the broken.

With these familiar words in mind, let me return to the thought that God is always waiting to be born.  You know what this means, don’t you?  God is born when the proud are scattered.  God is born with the lowly are uplifted.  God is born when the hungry are fed and the poor are comforted.  God is born when the prisoner is freed and the broken are bound up.  God is born and God is strong—and why?  Because your soul magnifies the Lord.  To magnify—to make bigger.  Our words and actions ought to make God bigger.

Which brings me to my second note of context—a word about peace.

Peace does not mean quiet.  Peace does not me calm tranquility.  Did you hear the world described in the words above?  According to Mary’s song and Jesus’ teachings, peace means turning the world as we know it upside down.  Peace means comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comforted.

Last week when Dennis preached, he reminded us that a voice prepares the way for God incarnate—a voice that refuses to be quiet in the face of injustice.  And I carried this challenge—to be a voice—through the remainder of the service, letting it shape how I heard the Great Thanksgiving of our Holy Eucharist.  At the end of each service, we prayed the post-communion prayer per usual.  But at the words: send us out into the world in peace—I paused.

Send us out into the world in peace.

Grant us strength and courage.

To love you and serve you.

Peace is not quiet. Peace takes strength and courage.  Loving and serving Jesus takes strength and courage.  Being a voice and singing Mary’s song takes strength and courage.  Giving birth to God takes strength and courage.

Which is why I can’t ignore this final word of context—the increasingly familiar violence we face—or perhaps choose not to face.

Three years ago, I preached this same Gospel text days after the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

Last year I preached this text the morning after two police officers were assassinated in Brooklyn.

And today I am preaching this text on the heals of a Wall Street Journal and NBC News poll finding that 71% of Americans believe that random acts of violence are part of American life.

Unfortunately, Mary’s song is not the only familiar tune.

And yet it is in the face of such violence that we must sing all the louder.

I think it’s easy enough to be inspired by Dennis when he reminds us that a voice prepares the way of the Lord.

I think it’s easy—though different–to consider the possibility that all are called to be mothers of God.

But how do those ideas play out in real life.  How do we move from proclaiming the Gospel to living it?

Sometimes I can walk out of church feeling so energized to do something, but then a few days go by and I find that I haven’t channeled that energy into doing anything new or different.

So in response to Dennis’ sermon last week, and in preparation for my sermon this week, I thought about how to use my voice to sing Mary’s song. And then I wrote my first letter to Governor Deal as a Georgia resident, asking him to reconsider his stance on refugees entering our state. It took all of ten minutes and $0.48.

And no, I don’t think that my letter will singlehandedly open Georgia’s doors to vulnerable families fleeing war. In fact, what usually keeps me from speaking up is the fear that my voice won’t make one bit of difference. That as a person of modest means and little influence, I might as well save my breath. But save my breath for what? God gave us a voice to join God in this song.

How will you give birth to God this week? How will you use your voice to sing Mary’s song? How will you go out into the world in peace?

Will you give more money than you are comfortable giving to ensure the most vulnerable in our city and world are cared for?

Will you bake a loaf of ginger bread for that acquaintance you’re not sure you know well enough to visit but know you should?

Will you sit with a woman who is dying and hold her hand while the pressure of Christmas to-do lists loom large?

Will you write a letter to your representative, or pick up the phone and call, even though you don’t feel knowledgeable or influential enough to do so?

Will you invite someone to your table, knowing it might make dinner uncomfortable for your family or other guests?

Let God scatter your pride this week so that you too can lift up the lowly. Find strength and courage in the meal we are about to share at this table so that you can proclaim peace—loudly and uncomfortably—to the poor.

God is waiting to be born. And St. Luke’s is pregnant with possibilities.

Amen.

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The Rich Young Man on Wall Street

Proper 23: Amos 5:6-7, 10-15; Psalm 90:12-17; Hebrews 4:12-16; Mark 10:17-31
Preached at Trinity Wall Street, New York

This week was my first time preaching after four months of maternity leave–a most amazing and spiritually formative time.  And I was thrilled when I saw the Gospel reading for Sunday included Mark’s version of the “rich young man” coming to Jesus.  I love this reading because it inspired a life-changing decision and adventure in me ten years ago.  But I also loved that I was going to get to preach this text while looking at Wall Street through the glass doors at the back of Trinity.

What struck me about Mark’s Gospel this week is that Jesus said what he did to the young man out of LOVE.  Jesus loved the man, and thus asked him to sell what he owned and give to the poor.  This was not a punitive statement–not something to shame or burden the man.  It was a statement made in love.  This is how Jesus loves us–by inviting us into a life of sacrifice for others.

Watch it here.

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And here’s the whole family at church this week.  I’m glad Jay put Charlie’s red Holy Spirit socks on for the occasion.

Confronting my own Racism

03/03 Update: Execution delayed because drugs to be used are “cloudy”–unclear if SCOTUS is reviewing case or not.

03/02 Update after 9pm: Execution delayed for SCOTUS to weigh in.

Tonight a woman named Kelly Renee Gissendaner is scheduled to be executed in Georgia at the age of 46. Her picture has been in my newsfeed for days, a beaming face under a blue graduation cap. She is known to at least one of my classmates from seminary.

At 6:45 tonight, I sat down on the floor to pray for Kelly. I wanted to pray for her in the minutes leading up to and following her scheduled 7pm execution. As I prayed, several thoughts and phrases repeated in my mind…
I sang the spiritual, “Oh, Sister, let’s go down, down to the river to pray.”
I recalled the words of the Nunc dimittis we recite at evening prayer, “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace… for mine eyes have seen thy salvation.”
I apologized to Kelly and made promises to her.
I asked God’s forgiveness for my being complicit in a broken and sinful system.

And then it hit me.

While I have been opposed to the death penalty for as long as I can remember, this feels different. And it feels different because Kelly looks like me.

A white woman, pictured in cap and gown, smiling, a professed Christian.

The difficult truth–for me at least–is that this death affects me differently than the more prevalent images of incarcerated black males. Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.

I’m re-reading Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow with a group of parishioners at Trinity Wall Street right now, I just met with a previously incarcerated black man last week to discuss some excellent work he is doing to give hope to prisoners serving life sentences, and I share dinner with a group of recently incarcerated (mostly black male) people once a month–so it’s not like I’m naive to the very real problem race disparity and mass incarceration.

And yet that knowledge is apparently not enough to override my internal prejudice.

Perhaps others will be more affected by Kelly’s execution as well, and perhaps God will use that extra dose of “she looks like me” discomfort to bring about justice. I don’t know. But I know Kelly has taught me a lot this night.

As of 8:45pm, Kelly has not yet been executed. She has been denied clemency–a decision affirmed by the parole board after her scheduled 7pm execution. I can’t imagine what the past few hours of hopeless hope have felt like.

Kyrie eleison. Lord have mercy.

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Observing a Holy Lent

Isaiah 58:1-12; Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

This morning I preached at our 8am Ash Wednesday service. It was special to me because a) this time last year I was a seminary volunteer at Trinity, sharing ashes in the church and on the street, not realizing I’d be a clergy person on staff a year later… and b) I’d never been asked to preach Ash Wednesday before.

In reading the lessons assigned for the day, I found that I loved the juxtaposition of Isaiah’s “Shout out, do not hold back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet!” with Matthew’s “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them… whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you.”

It made me laugh because I read lots of opinions on how to do Lent “right,” often opinions of other clergy friends, and often opinions expressed as rules or facts.

ie: Ashes on the street is evangelism and love in the real world! vs. Ashes to go is cheap grace and not real church! Brothers and sisters–please.

This is probably why my mom texted me earlier this week, asking for advice on whether she ought to wear her ashes all day or wipe them off after leaving church. Usually when my mom asks such questions, I suggest she ask her priest. So when I responded this time that the decision was a personal one she would have to make for herself, she replied, “How would you answer if I were not your mother?” My response: the same.

And so that’s what I preached about this morning. My mom wanted to know what the church’s “stance” is. The church’s stance is simply to invite you to observe a holy Lent. A good start is to observe which of the lessons for today make you squirm more. Do you prefer to wear ashes on your head all day so that folks will see what a good Christian you are, getting up early to go to church before work on a weekday? Then maybe Matthew’s text makes you a wee bit uncomfortable. And maybe in observing that discomfort, you decide to wipe your face clean before continuing your day. Or does the idea of wearing ashes strike you as a reminder of your mortality you’d rather forget–or as a strong symbol of your faith you’re nervous to profess? Then maybe Isaiah’s text pushes you outside your comfort zone. And maybe that discomfort challenges you to wear those ashes “loud and proud” all day long.

The answer isn’t the same for all of us because our sin manifests itself differently in our individual lives. Some sin is communal–it’s true. And some sin is yours alone–or mine alone. In Lent we get to reflect on both. It takes observation. It takes noticing where your discomfort is and how that might be distracting you from following Jesus.

What will you observe this Lent?

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Tough Love

Preached at Trinity Wall Street on the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany.
1 Corinthians 8:1-13; Mark 1:21-28

We tend to think of love as something soft and nurturing–and it is these things. But if we’re “doing” love right, it’s also hard.

Watch it here.

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Hi there

This was filmed back in August and edited this fall (thank you communications peeps for eliminating some of my awkward pauses and facial expressions!) as a means of introduction to the congregation. In the end, Trinity decided to wait until after my ordination to publish it–and now I share it with you.

Watch it here.

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Holy Spirit Extravaganza

On January 17th, my bishop came up from North Carolina and family and friends came in from Texas, Virginia, Maryland, North Carolina and of course New York–all to ordain me to the sacred order of priests.

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Photo credit: Craig Ruttle


Watch it here.

If you want to skip ahead to Bishop Michael Curry’s spirited sermon, it begins around 40 minutes in.

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Photo credit: Craig Ruttle


With Bishop Curry’s blessing, I asked that the readings for the day be those used in celebrating the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. They are Genesis 37:17-20 (Joseph the dreamer), Ephesians 6:10-20 (the whole armor of God–including shoes for proclaiming the gospel!), and Luke 6:27-36 (love your enemies). It is my prayer that these readings will forever shape and embolden my ministry in Christ’s church.

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