Tag Archives: Peace

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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A Deacon’s First Sermon

On Saturday, I was ordained a deacon at the Church of The Good Shepherd in Raleigh.  It was good to be in my home diocese.  On Sunday, I “deaconed” and preached at Christ Church in Charlotte, with all the sweet smells, visions, faces, and sounds of my home parish.  While I had preached at Christ Church before, this was my first time preaching in “big church” with some extra pieces of clothing befitting a deacon.  So it was a touch foreign and abundantly homey at the same time.  I remain filled with gratitude.
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Proper 7, Christ Episcopal Church, Charlotte, North Carolina
Genesis 21:8-21, Matthew 10:24-39

In the name of the One, Holy and Everliving God, Amen.

Even the hairs of your head are all counted…
I have not come to bring peace, but a sword…
You are of more value than many sparrows…
I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother…

Goodness, today’s Gospel message is full of paradox. One moment we are told how special and cared for we are. The next we are told of certain struggle and pain. Three times we are told not to fear, and then we are given some scary predictions of what to expect as followers of Jesus.

This is not an easy passage to preach.

And our first reading from Genesis isn’t any easier. Abraham sends his slave and mistress Hagar along with his firstborn Ishmael into the wilderness with nothing but some bread and water. And he does so with God’s blessing!

What are we to make of God’s word to us today? What is the good news?

I have a friend. He could be your friend too. He’s a member of this parish and he’s a doctor and most of his patients happen to be children. This friend often has to give children shots. And when he does, parents will attempt to prepare a child saying, “Now don’t worry honey—this isn’t going to hurt.” At which point my friend must turn to the child and say, “Actually, this is going to hurt. But only for a moment. And you are going to be OK.”

Now which of these statements is most likely to engender trust in the child?

Truth can be hard to hear sometimes, but truth doesn’t let us down. Truth grounds us. Truth gives us the sure foundation we need so that we can weather whatever lies ahead.

This Gospel passage is a shorter snippet of a longer conversation Jesus is having with his disciples about what to expect as followers. Some scholars call it the “missionary discourse” because Jesus is preparing his friends for a mission. He has summoned the twelve apostles, he has commissioned them to go out into the world preaching and healing, and he has warned them of persecution. Then comes this bit of comfort… and of swords. And then Jesus finishes the conversation by telling them that those who welcome the disciples–these missionaries–welcomes Jesus himself and the God and Father of all.

Are you a follower of Jesus? Then you, too, are a missionary. Listen to these hopeful and hard truths—they are yours.

“It is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher.” In other words, remember Jesus? Always stirring up trouble with statements like, “love your enemy” and “it is better to give than to receive?”[1] The Jesus who came to “proclaim good news to the poor” and “freedom for the prisoners?”[2] Well, Jesus followers, if the disciple is like the teacher, we ought to expect more than a few raised eyebrows about our lives and actions.

And listen when Jesus says, “What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops.” As Jesus followers, we’re not just called to know that God is Love and rest in that truth. We have to be and do that truth. We can’t just sing at Christmas “Go tell it on the mountain,” rather we must live lives and make decisions that truly tell-it-on-the-mountain every day.

Think back to the Sermon on the Mount when Jesus tells us, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” Do you recall the very next sentence? “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”[3]

When peace is not the way of this world, peacemaking is not peaceful work.

And so Jesus, like the doctor about to give a child a shot, tells it to us straight: “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.”

Again and again in the Gospels we see Jesus portrayed as one who contradicts the social norms and introduces chaos. Indeed, Jesus can be divisive. So the life of a disciple, a Jesus follower, a missionary–of you and me–could and perhaps should demonstrate the same. When the Gospel proclaims a counter cultural message, and we are the voices that proclaim it, we are going to come up against traditional power structures and even against one another. We see evidence of this division in our homes and in our churches as we all seek truth and then live out the difficulties of the truth we seek.

And as a result of being truth seekers, truth proclaimers and truth doers, we may feel deserted. Like Hagar and Ishmael, we can count on wilderness moments of thirst for living water and hunger for the bread of life. And like Hagar and Ishmael we can count on God showing up, hearing our cries, staying with us—even in the wilderness.

Today’s Bible passages tell it like it is. They tell us, “This is going to hurt, and you are going to be OK.” Truth like this may be hard to swallow, but it’ll stick to your ribs.

It’ll stick to your ribs when you take a big risk to make what could be just a small change in a broken world. And you’ll remember: do not fear…even the hairs of your head are all counted.

It’ll stick to your ribs when you speak up for a cause or a person who has been beat down. And you’ll remember: have no fear…nothing is secret that will not become known.

It’ll stick to your ribs when you keep quiet at a time you’d really like to speak up – so that someone else can be heard. And you’ll remember: do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.

The truths that give us comfort and hope mean what they do and ground our faith because we’ve heard the hard truths too. Jesus’ statement, “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword,” is uncomfortable to hear. It makes us squirm a little. We might want to gloss over these words to focus instead on words like, “I have come that they would have life and have it to the fullest.”[4] But Jesus’ promise of the Kingdom of God and life eternal and “life to the fullest” are promises we believe because Jesus tells the truth about all things—persecution and peace, division and reconciliation, oppression and salvation.

Jesus tells the disciples, “do not be afraid,” because Jesus knows how scary proclaiming the Gospel can be. Jesus anticipates us making unpopular decisions and speaking uncomfortable truths. AND Jesus tells the disciples, “do not be afraid,” because Jesus knows that God will show up and stay with us and sustain us until the fullness of the kingdom is known and the peace of God reigns supreme.

And so I’ll end with a prayer by William Sloan Coffin, taught to me by my dear mentor John Porter-Acee:

May God give you grace never to sell yourself short,
Grace to risk something big for something good,
Grace to remember that the world is too dangerous for anything but truth
And too small for anything but love.

Amen.

 

[1] Matthew 5:44 and Acts 20:35

[2] Luke 4:18

[3] Matthew 5:9-10

[4] John 10:10

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greater and lesser jihad

I’m on a peace kick.  I pretty much think and pray about how to bring more peace into the world all the time.  And I think about the tagline of this blog: “To seek and to be light.”

I’m writing a paper answering “What is the Muslim view of Peace?” and I have been struck by what jihad really means (struggle), and the difference between lesser and greater jihad.  The Prophet Muhammad basically said that the inner struggle is the greater jihad, and the struggle for social justice is the lesser jihad.

M. R. Bawa Muhaiyadeen, a modern Muslim spiritual master, explained this intentional juxtaposition thus:

“Be in the state of God’s peacefulness and try to give peace to the world.  Be in the state of God’s unity and then try to establish unity in the world.  When you exist in the state of God’s actions and conduct and then speak with Him, that power will speak with you.”

Aha.  Yes.  Something to post by my bed or on my mirror–perhaps on my calendar.  For as much as I am eager to learn all I can, hoping accrue as many peace-making tools as possible, I must not learn at the expense of intentionally being with God in both peace and unity.

Thank you, Islam, for giving this Christian perspective as we head into the final weeks of the term.

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