Saturday, December 17, 2011

Birthday Hat

Yesterday was my birthday.  A big one.  Or not so big - I can't decide.  Either they all are, or none are, and I am beginning to think that all birthdays are big, every new year a blessing both in its celebration of what has been and its anticipation of what will be.

A friend knit me a hat.

It is knit from the softest, squishiest, warmest yarn you can imagine, in the most beautiful shade of frosty blue, and it fits perfectly.

Another friend knit me a scarf.

This one wasn't a birthday gift.  She gave it to me a few weeks ago at our annual Knitting and Needlework in Advent retreat (yes, the one I haven't blogged about yet!) after we had all ooo'd and ahhh'd over it as she knit.  It is knit from Yarn Bee's Chrysalis (in lots more colors at Hobby Lobby stores), in the most beautiful shade of purple, and it fits perfectly.

Like birthdays, all knitted gifts are big, no matter their size.  Hats and scarves, afghans and sweaters...they all grew from nothing more than a single cast-on stitch.  They all represent the intentionality and effort and creativity and perseverance of the knitter, and they all hold the promise of joy for the recipient.

Thank you, friends!

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Preach One: Advent 3B

Preached at St. Andrew's Episcopal Cathedral, Jackson, MS, and St. Matthew's Episcopal Church, Forest, MS.  I actually sang the song in the sermon and haven't been able to get it out of my head all weekend...

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11; Psalm 126; 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24; John 1:6-8, 19-28

I know it is still Advent.  There is yet one candle left to light.  Shadows are yet growing longer, although lessened somewhat on this Sunday known as Gaudete, which is Latin for rejoice.  Even if we lightened our liturgical color to rose today, as many churches do, there is yet another Sunday of deep purple and blue.  Our scripture readings do not yet tell of mothers mild or mangers, only prophets, warnings, and promises.  The air is yet expectant.

It is still Advent, I know.  And while we are faithfully tending our wreaths and talking about hope at St. Andrew's Lower School, you must understand...there are nearly 500 children's beginning to look a lot like Christmas.  In Big Chapel an angel has already visited Mary at her house, and in chapel class the angel has returned with friends to give shepherds good tidings of great joy.  Handmade ornaments hang in every hallway, elves sit on every shelf, glitter covers EVERY surface, and children fill every day with cheer.

So it was that I lingered longer than I needed to in the copy room last week, because from just next door in music class came the sound of Christmas carols, and I couldn't quite tell if the singing belonged to herald angels or third graders.  They were heavenly either way.  As one song ended, though, and a new one began, I thought for a moment that they were finished caroling.  The new song was one we used to sing at summer camp as we hiked through the hills in the heat.  Children, go where I send thee.  How shall I send thee?  Well, I'm gonna send thee one by one...

And suddenly, as they sang, I realized that the song I learned at camp really did belong at Christmas.  I had never thought about it before - we just sang it to pass the time on the trails.  Well, I'm gonna send thee one by one, one for the itty bitty baby, wrapped in swaddling clothing, lying in a manger, born, born, born in Bethlehem.

It's an old spiritual, a counting song that builds on itself as you sing it, like "The Twelve Days of Christmas," so that by the end you're being sent twelve for the twelve apostles, eleven for the eleven that got into heaven, ten for the ten commandments...and so on, all sent finally for the itty bitty baby born in Bethlehem.

Advent, of course, is about the coming of that itty bitty baby; but it is also, it seems, about sending.  At least, that's what our gospel readings for the first three Sundays in Advent have been about.  On the first Sunday, Jesus spoke of when angels would be sent to gather the elect from the ends of heaven to the ends of the earth.  Last week, and today, it is John the Baptist who is sent to prepare the way of the Lord.  For that matter, next Sunday an angel will be sent to Mary, who will be sent with Joseph to Bethlehem.  Christ's coming is itself a sending...for in these last days you sent your Son to be incarnate from the Virgin Mary, to be the Savior and Redeemer of the world...

There I go again, looking a lot like Christmas when I know it is still Advent, when our gospel reading is not about Mary or Joseph but John.  There was a man sent from God, our reading begins as this evangelist picks up the story of salvation in exactly the same place Mark did last week.  Luke and Matthew also tell us about John the Baptizer, so that we have a remarkably full account of him.  We know his momma and daddy, and the circumstances of his birth.  We know what John looked like, where he lived, what he wore, what he ate.  We know what John did, how he went about preaching and baptizing and crying in the wilderness.  We know that John always had a flair for the dramatic, his passion palpable, like a child leaping in its mother's womb.

And yet, when John was questioned by priests and Levites, who came demanding to know who he was and what he had to say about himself, he told them mostly who he was not.  He was not, as some supposed, the messiah, and I suspect they were relieved, for they wouldn't have known what to make of a messiah who wore animal skins and ate bugs.  Nor was he Elijah, as others thought, whom many believed would return to announce the messiah's advent.  Nor was John a prophet, although for all the world he looked and sounded like one, shouting words like "repent" and "prepare" and making those in authority nervous.

What then?  Who are you?  What do you say about yourself? they asked.  And about himself, John answered, I am a voice.  I am a witness.  I am a testifier.  I am a preparer of the way for the One who is coming.  Who John was, by his estimation, had nothing to do with himself and everything to do with who Jesus was.  Although, by some accounts, he was not yet sure who Jesus was.

Surely they had been childhood playmates, as cousins often are.  Surely they had grown up together, gotten into mischief together, played make believe together, learned about God and faith and doubt and fear together.  By the time they stood together in the Jordan River, waist deep in the waters of baptism, John sensed there was more to Jesus than he had realized, but until then John only knew that Someone great was coming, and that nothing would ever be the same again.  He trusted that the God who sent him to prepare the way was up to something, that something wonderful was going to happen, indeed, had already happened, but we just did not know it yet.

Prepare!  Get ready!  Make straight the way of the Lord! John shouted, and in another gospel, someone asks him how.  How does one get ready to welcome the One who will come speedily to help and deliver Israel?  Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none, John answered.  That's how you get ready.  Whoever has food must do likewise.  That's how you prepare.  John may not have been sure who the messiah was, but he knew what the messiah would be about, how the anointed one of God would change everything, and John wanted everyone to be prepared.

How marvelous it is to imagine that John and Jesus might have been together when, as boys, they learned the words of the prophet Isaiah: The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me, the prophet wrote.  His words were addressed to God's people at a time when their hope had been reduced to rubble.  They were desperately in need of a messiah, someone to help them build up the ancient ruins and repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations.

This building up and repairing, though, according to Isaiah, would not be about replicating in bricks and mortar what had been before.  The new community would be built on a foundation of justice and mercy.  God has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and release to the give...these would be the building blocks, stone upon stone.  The spirit-filled anointed one of God would change everything, turn the world upside-down and inside-out.  The new kingdom would be characterized not by power but love, not by darkness but light, not by ashes but garlands, not by mourning but - gaudete - rejoicing.  It would be nothing short of a revolution.  A revolution, John knew, whose time had come.

There was a man sent from God...another who, like John so very many generations before, cried out in a wilderness of injustice and devastation.  The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King preached at our own National Cathedral in March of 1968, the last Sunday sermon he delivered before his death.  Like John's message of repentance, it was a sermon he had preached many times, with increasing urgency.  In it, Dr. King recalled the familiar short story of Rip Van Winkle, who fell asleep a subject of King George, III, and awoke, twenty years and a revolution later, a citizen under President George Washington.  "One of the great liabilities of life," Dr. King concluded, "is that all too many people find themselves living in a great period of social change, and yet they fail to develop the new attitudes, the new mental responses, that the new situation demands.  They end up sleeping through a revolution."

Jesus would not have us sleep through the revolution he has begun.  Keep awake, he instructed us at the beginning of Advent, for you do not know when the time will come.  And yet we do know, for he has come, that the time is now.  Indeed, after his baptism by John and upon reading aloud from the prophet Isaiah about the one sent from God, Jesus would say in the synagogue, Today - today - this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.

Are we prepared?  For surely not even John knew how the revolution would take an unexpected turn early one morning at an empty tomb when everything changed again with the rising sun.  The evangelist tells us Jesus came to the place where his followers were hiding and said to them, 'Peace be with you.  As the Father has sent me, so I send you.'  When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, 'Receive the Holy Spirit'.  So have we been Spirit-filled.  So are we anointed.  So are we sent as Christ's body to bring good news, to bind up, to proclaim release, to comfort, to provide, to give... So do we tend to the broken-hearted of the world in this season, not because it is Christmas, but because it is the only way to make sense of who we are.  "Our world is a neighborhood," wrote Dr. King.  "For some strange reason, I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be.  And you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be.  This is the way God's universe is made."

There was a man sent from God... And there is another, and there is another [pointing to members of the congregation].  And there is a woman sent from God.  And there is another... Just as John, Christ's forerunner, knew his whole identity to be bound up with the One who was coming, so do we, Christ's followers, know our whole identity to be bound up with the One who has come, who is coming again, who comes day after day with bountiful grace and mercy.  Indeed, this is what we will celebrate - what our Lower School is already celebrating, bless their hearts - at the great Feast of the Incarnation, how heaven and earth were bound up together in the person of Jesus the Christ, the Messiah, the Spirit-filled anointed One of God, the Revolutionary.

It is still Advent, I know.  But I can't get that Christmas song out of my head.  Children go where I sent thee.  How shall I send thee?  I'm gonna send thee one by one by one by one by all of us together, and always sent where Christ himself is going before.  We are voices.  We are witnesses.  We are testifiers.  We are forerunners in a kingdom that has already come.  We are followers of an itty bitty baby who has yet to be born.  We are sent, both to prepare the way of the One who is coming and to proclaim the good news that he has already come, Emmanuel, God-with-us.  In this season, on this day,  in this Advent, who are you?  What do you have to say about yourself?  Where is God sending you?  How will you prepare the way for God's coming?  How will you proclaim the good news that God is here?  Amen.

Artwork: "Epiphany Triptych - The Baptism," by Katherin Burleson; "The Voice of One in the Wilderness," by Gwen Meharg; "Prepare the Way of the Heart," by Gwen Meharg; "Rhythm (redo)," by Brian Zahnd.

Friday, December 09, 2011

Preach a Little One: Advent 3B

Preached at my last Lower School Faculty Eucharist at St. Andrew's Episcopal School.  Every Friday morning, a few of us gather in the Jean Jones Downey Chapel for a brief and quiet service of Holy Eucharist before the children descend upon our day.  Still, the best part of the service for me is when the early-arriving children put their hands and faces against the narrow glass windows of the chapel to see what's going on...

John 1:6-8, 19-28

Do you remember nights at summer camp, when all the lights were finally out, and all the giggles were finally quiet, and you were finally falling asleep?

Perhaps you were cuddled under a quilt or snuggled inside a sleeping bag, already half-dreaming and yet still half-hearing the wilderness intone its evening prayers...a rise and fall of the cadences of crickets and bullfrogs and owls...

...and the shrill, high-pitched buzz of a mosquito in your ear.  The one you shoo away with a flick of your hand, but that returns, hovering directly over your eardrum.  Over and over you brush it off, pull up your covers, hide under your pillow, try to get comfortable with your hands over your ears, but still somehow the buzz pierces every defense.

With apologies to John the Baptist for comparing him to a pesky insect, that's what I thought of when I read this Sunday's gospel reading.  Perhaps his voice wasn't shrill (who knows?) but it certainly is strident in this quiet season of dreaming and listening, watching and waiting.  Like a mosquito that won't go away, John is back for a second week in a row, a voice crying out in the wilderness of Advent, keeping us awake with his buzz about the One who will come after him.  Prepare.  Testify.  Bear witness.  Make a straight path...

Shoo, the authorities tried to tell him, but John just cried out all the more.

In the wilderness and wildness of this Advent, I wonder what we are only half-hearing?  What voices are we trying to shoo away?  Whether shrill and strident, or soft and silent, what words from God keep buzzing in our ears, piercing every defense?  Keep awake.  Be not afraid.  Prepare.  Rejoice.  What is God trying to say to you?


Artwork: "Dabar," by Chuck Hoffman and Peg Carlson-Hoffman.  'Dabar' is Hebrew for 'word'.

Monday, November 21, 2011

By the way...

...I finished a few things I haven't really told you much about.  In the wake of three failed attempts to knit a sock, I thought now would be just the right time to save face show you some projects that worked out just fine.

You saw my unfinished Five Hour Baby Sweater this summer.  I really did knit it in something like five hours, alongside my mom who was also knitting one.  The pattern was simple and the yarn oh-so-soft (mine is the blue one).

Mom incorporated a few buttonholes to close her sweater with the sweetest little pink buttons.  I wanted mine to tie closed, and had seen a cute example on Ravelry of a sweater with a crocheted tie that encircled the yoke of the sweater.  My poor sweater waited patiently for weeks for me to decide to attach a simple i-cord instead.

The Spartanburg Knitting Guild was collecting the sweaters to donate to one of several children's ministries they support.  It was fun to add my sweater to the collection on display at the guild retreat in September.

You also caught a glimpse of my No-Fuss Mitts just before the retreat, in another softest yarn ever (Louisa Harding Thistle).  I learned so much knitting these sweet little mitts, from the knitting instructor that never sleeps and is ever patient and repeats instructions as often as I ask it to (yay, YouTube!): provisional cast-ons, picot edges, folded hems, and thumb gussets...

...and embroidery!  At the last minute (in fact, in the car on the way to the retreat!), worried that despite the sweetness and softness of the mitts they would look plain amidst the many other mittens and gloves in the annual retreat contest, I decided to add a little detail.  I found instructions for a little embroidered lamb and (yay, YouTube!) learned how to do a duplicate stitch, a chain stitch, and a french knot.

The contest was indeed packed with the most beautiful, warm, soft mittens and gloves I have ever seen.    Of all things, mitts won first place!

I received a one-year subscription to Knitter's Magazine and the fun of being able to say I am an award-winning knitter!

Definitely way more fun than saying I am can't-seem-to-get-this-sock-to-fit knitter...

Friday, November 18, 2011

Preach a Little One: Last Pentecost A

Preached at the Lower School Faculty Eucharist, St. Andrew's Episcopal School

Matthew 25:31-46

The end times are upon us.

No, really.  This time, the end is actually near.  We are almost at the end of a liturgical year.  We are almost at the end of a calendar year.  We are almost at the end of a semester.  Advent and exams are in the air.

My tenth grade world history final exam had one question on it, and one question only.  Aliens have just landed.  Tell them the history of the world.  I stared at a blank sheet of paper for who knows how long, not knowing how to begin.  An hour and at least two sheets of paper later, full of names and dates and places and ideas, I had no idea how to end.

The end times are upon us.  Really.  At least, that is how it has seemed these past several Sundays as parable after parable has ended in outer darkness, where there sits a guest without a wedding robe, ten bridesmaids with no oil for their lamps, and a servant with a hidden talent.  Be ready, Jesus has warned us over and over again, for you do not know the hour or the day.

This Sunday, the last in the long season after Pentecost, the end is here.  The Son of Man in all his glory sits upon the judgment seat with all the nations gathered before him, and on the final exam there is one question, and one question only.  What did you do for the last of those who are members of God's family?

Did we feed the hungry?  Clothe the naked?  Visit the sick?  Take care of others?  Were we good neighbors?  Yes, sometimes., sometimes.  Sometimes we are generous, selfless, and brave.  And sometimes we are self-absorbed, full of excuses, and fearful.  Sometimes we are sheep.  Sometimes we are goats.

The end times are upon us.

Not really.  The time that is upon us is now, this moment in time, and the next, and the next, and then the one after that, each now a new beginning, a new opportunity to do for God what God loves best - doing for others.  The exam has begun, but we have quite literally all the time in the world to finish, and even then the one who sits upon the throne is the one who will leave the ninety-nine to find a single strayed sheep.  Or goat.  Or guest.  Or bridesmaid.  Or servant.  Or me.  Or you.  For sometimes we are the least of those who are members of God's family...

The beginning times are upon us.  The question is before us, and the answer is within us.  What will we do at this moment, and the next, and the next, for God by doing if for another?  Amen.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The Third Time... not a sock.

It is a ball of yarn.  Again.

It was almost a sock.

The pattern is Twisted, and I love it.  It is perfect for this yarn, little rivulets of slipped stitches crossing purly waves of blue and purple and gray.  I don't think I have ever purled so much in one project before.  In fact, by the time I got to the heel...again...I had purled more than 125 rows of cuff.

That would be 125 rows that don't fit.

But the third time is a charm (this is what I'm telling myself to keep from crying).  I've learned a few things.  I've learned that purling isn't so bad - in fact, I'm sort of fast at it.  I've learned that I can pick up dropped stitches (and then I can pick them up again...).  I've learned a new way to knit a heel flap.

It's flatter than the heel flaps I've knit before, and I'm not sure how it would hold up to wear and tear.  But it's pretty.

This has been my problem, I think - pretty.  I have pretty yarn that brings back pretty memories, I have found pretty patterns that knit up prettily.  But I haven't been carefully reading yarn labels carefully reading patterns paying attention to the suggestions of wiser knitters knitting a pretty sock that fits.

The yarn and the pattern are taking a break from me while I think things through.

The fourth time will be more than almost a sock.

Saturday, November 05, 2011

Fall Back

This year's fall is every bit as brilliant as spring, filled with colors more vivid than the crayolas that bear their names - orange red, maize, gold, burnt sienna... I'm using my extra hour tonight to post pictures.

Every day is new.  Little Charlie and I watch the trees as we drive to school, and the one that was aflame yesterday is nearly bare, while another nearby that was all green has suddenly turned golden.

He may have inherited something of my love of autumn.  Cleaning out his pockets at night I've found red and yellow leaves stuffed inside...

When I was not much older than Little Charlie, there must have been another brilliant fall.  We had hiked around the lake at a local state park, inhaling autumn and collecting leaves to press between pieces of wax paper.  It became something of a mission to find one perfect red leaf... I do not remember if we ever did.  But a song was written later that day, and I do remember it...

Falling leaves are autumn's treasure,
We can laugh with simple pleasure,
Watching sunbeams dancing above our heads.
As the leaves swirl gaily 'round us,
Orange, gold, and brown surround us,
While somewhere there's one leaf of red.

And we search for what we know is
Just beyond here where we have been led,
For the greatest treasure we will find today
Is one leaf of red.

Folk who have less time than we do
Follow clearer paths that lead to
Answers to their questions of here and now.
On this wooded path we follow,
Mysteries need not be unraveled
As we look for truth here within.

And you and I will seek our
Answers in this world that doesn't ask how.
We're content to count our leaves as 
Treasures without questioning how.

And we search for what we know is
Just beyond us here where we have been led,
For the greatest treasure we will find today
Is one leaf of red.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Third time's a...

...well.  I'm hoping it's going to be a sock.

The first time was going to be a sock.  Knitting a pair of fingerless mitts (I haven't told you much about those yet, but I will!) on double points made me remember how much I like the fiddly feeling of double points and so I settled on socks.  Out of my sock yarn stash leapt the skein of Opal I brought home from Scotland more than three years ago, because the colors reminded me of the stones and sea there.

I searched for a pattern that could also remind me of the sea, and picked Jaywalker (sorry - Ravelry link!) with its pointed chevron waves.  The pattern actually called for Opal yarn on the exact size needles I planned to use and so I skipped the gauge swatch (not that I would have been inclined to knit one anyway).  I had read on Ravelry that the pattern didn't have much give, but all yarn gives, right?

I cast on and found the pattern perfect for the yarn.  It was easy to memorize and before I knew it I had turned the heel and was well on my way through the gusset.  No matter that it seemed a little narrow.  All yarn gives, right?

Finally I had knit enough to try the sock on, and I pictured my toes sticking out from between the double points as I happily slid it on.

All yarn does not give.  Not when you knit it in patterns that don't give.

And yet I kept knitting, because surely all yarns give after you've washed and blocked a garment, right?  I kept knitting, because even if the socks didn't fit I could give them away to someone with smaller feet.  I kept knitting, because the thought of ripping out socks knit all the way to the gusset...

Which meant that when reason finally prevailed (or it may have been selfishness - I really wanted to keep the socks) there was all that much more sock to rip out.

So the second time was still going to be a sock, still using Jaywalker, still using the same yarn and needles - I just went up one size in the pattern.  I cast on again, and because the pattern was now so familiar, the sock went quickly.  I could tell it was larger, and was certain that this time it would fit just fine.

Just after knitting the gusset, I tried my sock on..., the third time I am really, really, really hoping this is going to be a sock.  No more Jaywalker, even though I love how the yarn looked knit up in that pattern.  Now I'm going with Twisted, which reminds me of the ridges of stones and sand and shallow ripples of water along the seashore in Scotland.  The yarn called for and needle size are comparable, so I skipped the gauge swatch (I learn slowly) and cast on.

They say the third time's a charm.  I just hope the third time gives.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Preach One: Proper 25A

Preached at Holy Trinity Episcopal Church in Crystal Springs, MS, and St. Matthew's Episcopal Church in Forest, MS.

Deuteronomy 34:1-12; Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17; 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8; Matthew 22:34-46

"Do not let the cabin door slam."  It was always a rule at the summer camp where I worked as a counselor.  One of our first-day-of-camp traditions, after everyone had made up their bunks and taken their swim tests, was to work together on a list of cabin rules.  "Do not leave food in the cabin," someone would add, perhaps remembering a mouse incident from the summer before.  "Do not talk after lights out," we had to put on our list, but everyone knew it really meant, "Do not talk loudly-enough-for-the-counselor-on-night-duty-to-hear-you after lights out."  Of course another rule was always, "Be kind and respect each other."

It was a pretty good list of eight or ten rules that would help us live together at camp.  Which of the rules do you think was most important?  I know the answer should be, "Be kind and respect each other," but I was partial to the rule I always contributed to the list, arachnophobe that I am: "Kill your own spiders."  I could start a fire in the rain, comfort a homesick camper, sing countless bedtime songs, and inspire my campers to win the most cabin inspections, but if someone found a spider in their bunk, they were going to have to take care of it themselves.

Our ancestors in faith had a few more than eight or ten rules to help them live together in community.  Hebrew scriptures list 613 laws in all, 613 commandments: 248 "thou shalts" and 365 "thou shalt nots," covering every imaginable courtesy, every imaginable quarrel, every imaginable way one might help or harm another.

It had all started, of course, with the commandments Moses copied down on stone tablets and carried across deserts and rivers and mountains to the very edge of the Promised Land.  We just wrote our cabin rules on poster board and hung them beside the not-to-be-slammed door.  Eventually, the commandments came to be kept by religious authorities who studied them rigorously and applied them vigorously so that, by Jesus' day, the commandments seemed to set people against one another rather than binding them together.

It was impossible to follow all the rules at camp.  Racing out of the cabin after rest period, swimsuits and towels in hand for free swim, someone always let the door slam.  There was always a secret stash of candy or homemade cookies.  Late night whispers would always give way to giggles and loud shushing.  Someone was always more afraid of spiders than I was.

If our eight or ten rules couldn't be faithfully kept, surely it was all the more impossible to follow all the commandments of God.  In the wilderness God's people broke the rules before the rules even made it down the mountain, worshiping a golden calf instead of God, and while God forgave them time and time again, the religious authorities were less lenient.  So it was that they took issue with Jesus, who seemed intent on breaking the rules left and right.  He touched people who were unclean.  He worked on the Sabbath.  He ate with sinners.  He called himself God.

When Jesus arrived in Jerusalem, the religious authorities grew even more alarmed.  The people loved him, showing him all glory, laud and honor as they waved their palm branches and shouted their hosannas.  But at every turn and with every word, Jesus seemed to disregard both the law that ordered Jewish life and the leaders who ordered Jewish law.  He had torn down tables in the temple courtyard, shouting something about unfair sacrifices people were forced to make there in order to make the faithful sacrifices commanded in the law.  In parable after parable he had claimed God's kingdom not for those who carefully guarded its gates but rather for those who slipped in through its cracks.  Furious, and frantic to preserve the order they worshiped, the authority they enjoyed, the commandments they kept, Jerusalem's religious leaders sought to reign in this rabbi.

Which of the rules do you think is the most important? a lawyer among the Pharisees asked Jesus, and there was no way for Jesus to answer correctly.  Rabbinic teachings interpreted the law in a variety of ways, counting and ordering and weighing the commandments differently, sot hat no matter how Jesus answered, no matter which commandment he chose, the lawyer could claim a different interpretation and prove Jesus wrong.

And so Jesus did not choose a single commandment.  He chose all of them.  And he named them all, Love.  'You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.'  This is the greatest and first commandment.  And a second is like it: 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.'  On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.

There wasn't a single commandment, Jesus answered, that wasn't about love - which is to say, about God - at the center of life in community, at the center of all our relationships, of all our encounters with one another, with our neighbors, and with our deepest and truest selves.  Love - which is to say, God - is at the center of it all.  Not the feeling kind of love, the warm fuzzy kind of love that makes us weep at weddings or at the sight of spectacular sunsets, but the kind of love with which God loves, the kind of love that God is, the kind of love by which God created us and called us into community in the first place.

Scriptural scholar Douglas Hare writes, "The primary component of biblical love is not affection but commitment...stubborn, unwavering commitment," no matter how many times the rules are broken.  I will be your God, and you will be my people, God promised, and God has kept that promise, loving us thoroughly and unconditionally and not at all warmly and fuzzily, although assurance of God's love deeply comforts our hearts and souls and minds.  God's love is fierce.  It is active.  It is forgiving.  It is redeeming.  It is reconciling.  It is welcoming, healing, nurturing, embracing, seeking, celebrating, weeping, aching, leading, longing love.  God loves with all of who God is.  God is all Love.

And God, with every rule God gives, commands us to love, to be committed to God and our neighbors and ourselves with all of who we are, with all our heart and with all our soul and with all our mind.  Not just with the part of ourselves that feels affection.  Not just with the part of us that is afraid.  Not just with the part of us that is tolerant.  The rules say to love with all of who we are.

But all of who we are knows all sorts of other rules, too, written and unwritten, more even than the 613 laws of Hebrew scripture.  Rules like, Nice guys finish last.  You get what you deserve.  We can't all be winners.  Winning is everything.  Skinny is beautiful.  Real men don't cry.  Time is money.  Money is everything.  There are rules for success, rules for fitting in, rules for standing out, rules for getting what we want.  There are rules for what families should look like, what jobs are acceptable, what assistance is sufficient, what differences are tolerable.  There are so many rules that make demands of our time, our energy, our resources, and our attention.  How can we possibily give all of who we are to love, sharing as Paul and his helpers did not only the good news of God in Christ but our own selves, heart and soul and mind?

There is hope.  God chose us, God called us, God saved us, God loved us long before there were commandments carved in stone, long before Moses ever climbed that mountain.  In the beginning, God created us.  In God's own image, God created us.  And as Thomas Merton writes, "To say that I am made in the image of God is to say that love is the reason for my existence, for God is love.  Love is my true identity.  Selflessness is my true self.  Love is my true character.  Love is my name."  God does not ask us to do or be what we are not - in commanding us to love, God commands us to be who we are.  We are people made to be in community.  We are people made to be forgiving.  We are people made to heal, to nurture, to embrace, to weep, to ached, to seek, to reconcile, to love.  Sometimes we break the rules.  Sometimes we are afraid to keep them.  Sometimes we are braver than we realized, defeating spiders, or braver still, letting them live.

What rules are we living by today, in our lives, our communities, our church?  What rules shape our relationships, our encounters, the way we regard ourselves?  How would it be if we lived by only one rule?  What if that rule was Love?  Amen.

Artwork: "Thoughts on Communion," by Barbara Desrosiers; "God's Love," by Lee Ribal.

Sunday, October 09, 2011

Preach One: Proper 23A

Preached at St. Matthew's Episcopal Church, Forest, MS.

Exodus 32:1-14; Psalm 106:1-6, 19-23; Philippians 4:1-9; Matthew 22:1-14

From time to time at St. Andrew's Lower School I get comments on my clothes.  Sometimes it is a compliment.  I like your skirt, a child says, tugging on it.  I like your bracelet.  I like your cross.  Most of the time, though, the comments are about my blouse, especially about the white collar at the top.  What is that? they ask.  Why do you wear that?  I got a new question about the collar a few days ago, from a kindergartener: How do you get that off?  I didn't tell him that every priest wonders exactly the same thing by about 1:30 pm on Sunday afternoons.

I usually tell children the collar is like a uniform, something I wear to work every day, something that helps people know what my job is.  Whey they see someone dressed like me, they can know that person is probably someone who leads prayers and talks about God.  People who do other jobs wear different kinds of uniforms, like nurses, firemen, soldiers, and chefs.  We can tell what people do by what they wear.

So it is also, it seems, for those who are called and chosen by God.  I don't mean clergy; I mean all of us, for we are all of us invited by grace to be part of God's best plans for the world.  In the parable we have just heard Jesus tell, the King gathers everyone who will come, until the great hall prepared for a wedding feast is filled.  The kingdom may be compared to this, Jesus says.

It is not a favorite parable among preachers, who would gladly exchange their uniforms for just about any other on the Sunday this story is read.  One more Jesus spoke to the people in parables, Matthew begins, but already we are anxious.  In the last parable we heard, an angry landowner took terrible revenge on the tenants who refused to give him his harvest, who killed his servants and even his son.  We much prefer parables about scattering seeds, working the fields, tending sheep, and finding lost things.

This parable, though, is uncomfortably like the last.  An angry king takes terrible revenge on the townspeople who refused to come to his table, who killed his servants and dishonored his son.  Still, we might make sense of both stories by supposing that all who choose their own gain simply cannot live in a vineyard or a kingdom ruled by grace.  It would utterly destroy them.

And yet there is a vineyard to lease, this time to tenants who will gladly give first fruits to the landowner.  There is a wedding feast to share, this time with guests who will gladly come to the table.  The King sends out another round of invitations, instructing his remaining servants to go out into the streets to tell everyone they can find, both good and bad, that the King is waiting to welcome them.

What do you wear to a royal wedding?  Dress blues?  Glittering gowns?  Extravagant hats?  Long white gloves?  A collar?  It is important to wear the right thing, for the King can tell what we do by what we wear.  And, apparently, by what we do not wear.

He noticed there a man who was not wearing a wedding robe... Neither Jesus nor Matthew describes the missing garment or tells just what it means, leaving us to stare into our own wardrobes and wonder whether we, too, will be thrown into outer darkness.  We have been invited to the wedding feast.  Are we properly attired?

From start to finish, our holy scriptures are concerned with what we wear.  Why do you wear that? God asks Adam and Eve in the garden, and soon they are clothed not just in fig leaves but animal skins and whatever else they can find to hide their shame.  One day, though, marvels the writer of Revelation, those who have risen above living for themselves alone will wear white robes washed clean as a lamb.

"We are naked, literally and metaphorically, before the living God," writes Garcia Grindal, scholar and poet.  "We need to be dressed, not with the sartorial choices of our own will, but with the grace of God."  And so we are urged in scripture to put on Christ (Romans 13:14), to robe ourselves in righteousness (Ephesians 4:24), to clothes ourselves, as God's chosen ones, holy and beloved, with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.

Each of us, all of us, good and bad, are invited by grace to be part of God's best plans for the world.  We are entrusted with the care of the vineyard.  We are invited to the wedding feast - not just a one-night affair, but a lifetime, even an eternity, as guests at God's groaning board.  What will we wear?

Our closets are full of clothes we have chosen to make ourselves look good, to make ourselves look successful, to make ourselves look important, to make ourselves look worthy, or at least like we're worth more than others.  We put on whatever we can find to hide our shame, our doubt, our anger, our selfishness, our weakness, our sin, our vulnerability, our nakedness before God.

But the invitation to kingdom life asks of us a willingness to garb ourselves in kingdom qualities, to wear love and mercy and forgiveness and humility and forgiveness and vulnerability and welcome on our sleeve.  Without that garment, even grace cannot keep us in the door, although perhaps the glimmer of good news in this parable is that grace will search the streets for us again and again until we are dressed and ready.  For even the disgraced guest is called friend...

The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son.  He sent his servants, saying, "Tell those who have been invited, which is to say, everyone, the good and the bad: Look, I have prepared my dinner...and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet."  We are invited.  We are called.  What will we wear?

May God's grace precede and follow us to the table, urging us to put on Christ, to wrap ourselves up in a life like his, loving and serving with gladness and singleness of heart, gaining not ourselves but a kingdom.  Amen.

Artwork: "The Party," by Jim Janknegt; "Waiting," by Nancy Stoller; "Claiming Table," artist unknown.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Preach One: Proper 21A

Preached at Holy Trinity Episcopal Church in Crystal Springs, MS, and at St. Matthew's Episcopal Church in Forest, MS

Exodus 17:1-7; Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16, Philippians 2:1-13; Matthew 21:23-32

I never took the ERB exams when I was in school.  I never took the ISEE, or the MCT2, or the ACT.  But I've taken the SAT, and several AP's, and the GRE and the GOE's.  We know our educational system's standardized tests by their acronyms, by rows of letters like a scantron sheet full of answers waiting to be bubbled in.

It was ERB week this week at St. Andrew's Episcopal School, where I work.  As I peeked in on classrooms full of children busy with exam booklets and answer bubbles, I was suddenly a student again, waking up early on test day, eating a healthy breakfast, and arriving at school armed with number two pencils and scratch paper.  I remember the flimsy booklets filled with columns of math problems and reading comprehension questions, analogies and synonyms, formulas and definitions.  But what I remember most about taking standardized tests are the directions.

Do not begin until you are instructed to do so.  Go on to the next page until you see the word "stop".  Erase stray marks completely.  Fill in the circle, and make your mark dark.

I learned a little bit about psychometrics, the art and science of creating tests, in graduate school.  But I have forgotten why and how it is sometimes better to guess when you do not know the answer, and sometimes it is better to leave the answer blank.  In this evening's gospel reading, we hear both approaches, and neither gets a very good score.

We do not know, the chief priests and elders respond, leaving the answer blank when the question of John the Baptist's authority arises.  Is it of divine or human origin?  Either answer would get them in trouble with the crowds whose respect they crave, and so they choose not to answer at all.  Neither will I tell you by what authority I am acting, Jesus replies, and while it sounds like leaving the question blank, he will go on to explain that he has shown all his work.  Hadn't they seen?  Hadn't they heard?

Maybe they would do better on the analogy section, so Jesus tells a parable of two sons ordered by their father to work in the vineyard.  What do you think?  Which of the two did the will of the father, Jesus asks, and the chief priests and elders correctly guess that it was the one who said no, but who later changed his mind and went to work after all.

But still they did not understand.  Still they did not see.  They did not hear that the question wasn't about authority.  It wasn't about right and wrong answers.  It wasn't about pleasing God by getting a perfect score on some test, although the religious leaders of Jesus' day loved nothing better than scorekeeping.  If they were keeping score, they would have noted that neither brother in the parable deserves full credit for his answer.  The one who agreed to do his father's will didn't end up going into the vineyard at all, and the one who went to work at first refused.

If we were keeping score in our reading from Exodus, we would have noted that the Israelites' scantron is also full of stray marks, half-erased answers, and second guessing.  Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst, they complained, perhaps forgetting how they once thirsted not for water but for freedom and a future.

For that matter, if we were keeping score, how would we in our own lives measure up?  Would we merit the credit God gave us in Jesus Christ, whose perfect obedience to the Father is the only reason we pass the test at all?  On test day, which is to say every day (for when do we not find ourselves faced with multiple choices) how often do we wake up on the wrong side of the bed, skip a healthy breakfast, forget to follow directions, guess wildly, or throw up our hands in defeat and say we just don't know?

If we were keeping score... It turns out none of us are very good at psychometry, at creating tests, writing questions, and making out answer keys, precisely because we do keep score.  God does notIs the Lord among us or not, the Israelites asked, but it was the wrong question.  Hadn't they seen?  Hadn't they heard?  God was there as pillar and cloud, leading them from slavery to salvation.  God was there as manna, feeding their hunger.  I will be standing there in front of you on the rock, God promised from the place where water would gush out, quenching their thirst.  The people questioned God's authority.  But the real question was about their faith, their response to God's power and presence, their willingness to go on to the next page, the next stage of their journey through life's wilderness, trusting that God was with them.

Is the Lord among us or not, the chief priests and elders are truly asking when they question Jesus' authority, but it was the wrong question.  Hadn't they seen?  Hadn't they heard?  God was there no longer just in the words of prophets but as a living Word of hope and promise and forgiveness and grace.  Even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe, Jesus said.  The real question was about their faith, their response to God's power and presence, their willingness to go on to the next page, the next stage of their journey through life's wilderness, trusting that God was with them.

Is the Lord among us or not?  Paul tells us we are still asking the wrong question.  God is with usIt is God who is at work in us, enabling us both to will and to work for God's good pleasure.  What the Israelites and the chief priests and elders and we all fail to realize is that, if we must look at life as a test, it isn't about right and wrong answers at all.  The son who went into the vineyard to work didn't give the right right answer - he told his father no.  He didn't give the right answer, but he did live it.  In the end, he didn't let a hasty response, a mistake, a stray mark, keep him from doing his father's will.  That son changed his answer from a disobedient word to a faith-filled way of acting, and for showing his work he got full credit.

Thank goodness life is not a standardized test.  There may be rules to remember.  There may be choices to make.  There may be right and wrong answers, easy and hard ways to work things through.  But God sees and hears more than our multiple choices, more than our true and false, more than our yes and our no.  Our response to God's authority in our lives is not contained in a little bubble.  Our response to God's authority, God's will, God's invitation, in our lives is how we live them, day in and day out, mistakes, stray marks, and all.  As we work out our salvation, if we will but believe that God is among us, that indeed it is God who is at work in us, saving us all along, if we will but believe, then God will erase our stray marks completely and give us full credit simply for trying.

The vineyard to which we are called, the world out there, might as well be a wilderness.  But we do not journey there alone, nor do we face life's daily tests without a study guide.  Is the Lord among us or not, we have always asked, and God has answered with fire and cloud and bread and water and, finally, with Christ himself, God's divine yes to our human no.  Haven't we seen?  Haven't we heard?  Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, Paul encourages us, and so our questions of how to do our Father's will, how to see, how to hear, how to work, how to live, how to love, are once and for all answered.

Let us take out our pencils.  Let us go on to the next page until, one day, we see the word "stop", and let us answer this question to the best of our ability, being certain to show our work: Will we go into the vineyard today?  Amen.

Artwork: "Vineyard Gold," by Jennifer Vranes; "Moses Striking the Rock," by Marc Chagall; "Jesus Icon Painting," by Alpha Shanahan.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Because I Need a New Hobby

I only signed up for one workshop at this year's Knit-a-Way Retreat in Little Switzerland.  I know I said in my last post that all I planned to do was sit on a porch, look out at this,

and knit, but the workshop I signed up for didn't call for needles.  Or patterns.  Or yarn.  I suppose we could have met on the porch, but it was quite cold all weekend.  Good thing we were surrounded by wool.

A big, soft, squishy pile of chocolate and gray wool roving, to be exact (I don't know just what kind of sheep it was, but it must have been the softest, squishiest sheep ever).  It took me two days and lots of guidance from instructor Teri Gabric, but I learned how to spin that beautiful roving into...

yarn!  I made yarn!

From the moment Teri sat me down at the wheel I loved spinning.  Now, everything I tell you about the experience must be prefaced by the disclaimer that I now know enough about spinning to know that I hardly know anything at all.  Except that I love it...

The wheel I used was an Ashford Kiwi, easily the most affordable of wheels across a range of the most common brands, and great for beginners.  Of course I've never used any other wheels, but I'd happily work with this one again.  The workshop began with treadling, and as our feet got used to the rhythm, Teri gave us a vocabulary lesson.  I love all the new words!  Flyer.  Scotch Tension.  Treadles.  Maidens.  Footmen.  Bobbin.  Niddy noddy.  Mother of All.

The hardest part for me was getting the wheel going in the right direction (to the right to spin, to the left to ply), and it's still a little bit of a mystery to me how I got it to go at all.

The other hardest part was finding the balance between holding on to the roving and letting it go, pulling it apart and spinning it together, making it twist and making it not twist too much...There will surely be a "preach one" post about the theological implications of spinning one of these days.

The other hardest part (there were lots of hard parts, but I still loved it!) was stopping.  I mean, I wanted to keep spinning and spinning and spinning, but all good workshops come to an end.  My new yarn has been resting, and all that is left to do is soak it and block it, which may take out a little of the overtwist I spun into it.  Thank you, Teri, for your patience and instruction!

By the way, Teri and I weren't the only ones spinning in Little Switzerland this weekend...

Photos with watermark "Robert Kanavel" were taken by Robert Kanavel, spouse of one of my new favorite knitting friends!  Thanks for letting me use your photos, Rob!