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!

Thursday, September 15, 2011

On the Road Again...

Momma J and I are back on the road, heading with my mom to Little Switzerland, NC, for the Spartanburg Knitting Guild's annual Knit-a-Way Retreat!  Two and a half days of knitting, mountains, mom and me!  And a bunch of other amazing, talented, funny, generous knitters...

This is my third year to go to the Knit-a-Way at the Big Lynn Lodge.  I can't wait to see our little cabin with rocking chairs on the porch, to taste the hot oatmeal in the morning and the delicious homemade desserts after dinner, to hear the sound of knitting needles clicking away, and to feel to cool mountain air.

Last year the workshops I signed up for were canceled because the instructor was sick.  That was okay, though, because I had hauled some preaching work up the mountain and spent several lovely late afternoon hours on that front porch reading and writing.

Mom and I took a side trip to Mountain Farm, an organic lavender and blueberry farm.  They also raise sheep, goats, chickens, and fluffy bunnies.  Everything was out of season, but it was still just beautiful, especially in the lavender labyrinth.

In a little shop between the lavender and blueberries, they sell soaps and teas and sachets filled with lavender, and when its warm out they provide ice cold lavender lemonade (it was chilly when we were there).  They also send fleeces from their goats and sheep and bunnies out to be processed and spun into yarn.  

I didn't get much knitting or purling done last year, what with all the preaching I had to do.  But I loved being at the Knit-a-Way all the same.  This year my bag is full of needles and yarn - no books or Bibles or commentaries!  Just tuck me away on a porch, spread out a mountainview in front of me, and let me start knitting!

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Preach One: September 13

Preached in Middle and Upper School Chapel at St. Andrew's Episcopal School, Ridgeland, MS

Isaiah 35:5-7; Psalm 103; Romans 12:9-21

I can't believe I'm old enough to even consider starting this sermon with the words, "Back when I was in school..."  Things were a little different back then, though.  We used big books called encyclopedias to write research papers, danced all night to Duran Duran, and the bigger we could get our hair, the better.

Change is good, right?  Things change so fast these days, though, that even you are old enough to say, "Back when I was little..."  Just ten years ago, in your lifetime, the world was a much different place.  There was no Face book.  No Twitter.  No texting.  In fact, lots of people didn't even have cell phones.  I didn't.

If I'd had a cell phone ten years ago, I probably would have called home the moment I realized I was not where I was supposed to be.  It was September; we had moved to New York City in August for me to begin my seminary studies.  We had just started getting used to the sounds that surrounded the quiet seminary close - city buses braking at the corner, subway cars rumbling deep below,  taxi cabs honking at pedestrians, airplanes on their low approach to La Guardia, sirens and car alarms and shouts in every language.

We knew that something was different, though, when on our first day of class the sirens became more constant, more urgent, drowning out all other sounds as emergency vehicles began rushing down to Lower Manhattan.  We knew that everything had changed when, by the time the sun set on that awful day, the city that never sleeps was completely still.

In the days and weeks that followed September 11, we returned to class, and traffic returned to the streets; airplanes wouldn't return to their flight path over the city for months.  One afternoon, I tucked my ten-month-old in his stroller and headed for the Hudson River, just a few blocks west of our apartment.  We walked along the river for a while, watching the boats to our right and the Westside Highway to our left, where the median was still full of handwritten signs thanking firefighters and other first responders for their heroism.

It was later in the day than I realized, though, and getting dark quickly.  I wasn't sure how far we had walked, but knew I couldn't get home before light was gone.  I didn't have a cell phone, and anyway, ten years ago cell phones were just...phones.  They weren't smart.  I knew that the subway line back to the seminary was nearby, and as the streetlights flickered on, I turned down the next street.

It was Canal Street, the farthest south one could go without security clearance in those days.  Police cars and fire engines lined the street, now a staging area for those going on to do recovery work at the World Trade Center.  Red and blue lights flashed everywhere, workers were moving gear and equipment between vehicles, crates of food and water spilled out of Red Cross vans, and hundreds of rescuers waited to start their shifts.

In the midst of all the activity, I couldn't find the entrance to the subway, and now quite anxious, I asked a police officer if he would point me in the right direction.  He did.  In fact, he walked me to the subway entrance.  And then he carried my son, stroller and all, down the stairs to the turnstile.  And then he pulled two subway tokens from his pocket and sent us through.  And then he waited until the train came.  And then...

...And then what?  I went home.  But that officer...did he then go take his place sifting through the still-smoldering debris?  Did he report back to his precinct, from which who knows how many others had been lost?  Did he go home to wash the dust and ask from his clothes and hair?

It feels strange to tell you this story, this single small moment of kindness extended from one stranger to another, one neighbor to another, when there are so very many other far more extraordinary stories from that time to tell.  Soul-gripping, awe-inspiring stories of courage, compassion, sacrifice, generosity, endurance, and grace.  And yet, though small, this was a moment of kindness, of taking time not simply to point someone in the right way, but to walk with them in it, even if just to the end of the block, or the bottom of the stairs, even if just to wait with them until the next train comes.

So it is, I believe, that every moment holds for us just such an opportunity.  Every moment, every encounter, holds opportunities to not just speak kindness but to do kindness.  Not just to offer comfort but to be comfort.  Not just to show compassion but to be compassion, to live compassion, one single small moment at a time.  After all, it's how we were made, in the image of God who is, we just read, full of compassion and mercy, slow to anger, and of great kindness.  We were made in just such an image.  How would it be if moment by moment, encounter by encounter, we chose to let that image shine through rather than letting our shadow side show, full of fear and anxiety, quick to judge, and of sometimes great cruelty?  Those are choices we can make, too...

Compassion - Love, which is to say, God - was chosen by the police officer on Canal Street that night.  It was chosen over and over in countless moments throughout the city in those days, and in Washington, and in Pennsylvania.  It has happened overseas in countless moments where women and men still serve in the name of ending terrorism.  It happens every day in this city when volunteers like you prepare meals or donate clothes or provide tutoring or clean up a street.  It happens right here at school when we choose in any single moment, no matter how seemingly small, to be how we were made to be, full of compassion and mercy, slow to anger, and of great kindness.  Our small moments add up, and before we know it, the whole world has changed.  "Only the smallest part of humanity wishes and acts upon the destruction of others, "writes Eboo Patel, founder of the Interfaith Youth Core.  "Those of us who believe in a world where we live together, are far larger.  The problem is we just haven't made our case compelling yet."

If it feels strange to hear that your story is so deeply a part of the story of September 11, I submit to you that our ability to make the kinds of compelling choices people made on that day begins right here and now.  Practicing that kind of compassion is the best way we can honor their soul-gripping, awe-inspiring heroism.  Our ability to choose love and kindness and courage begins in the classroom, at our lockers, on the stage, on the field, on the sidewalks, in our city.  Two days after September 11, singer-songwriter Carrie Newcomer wrote a new song, prefaced by the words, "Courage, friends - the world is still filled with the finest of people."  To those people, including, I believe, you and me, she sings, "So don't tell me hate is ever right or God's will - these are the wheels we put in motion ourselves.  The whole world weeps, and is weeping still.  Though shaken, I still believe the best of what we all can be.  And the only peace this world will know can only come from love."

Ten years from now, when you're almost old enough to say, "Back when I was in school," what stories will you tell about how things are different than they used to be?  What stories will you tell about when everything changed?  How will you by your stories, your choices, your moments, your encounters, make the case for love more compelling than the case for fear?

Let your love be genuine; hate what is evil, and hold fast to what is good.  Love one another, and outdo one another in showing honor... Take care of God's people in need, and show kindness even to strangers...

Rejoice with those who rejoice; weep with those who weep.  Never repay evil for evil... If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all... Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.  Amen.

Artwork: Photographs of banners outside St. Paul's Chapel, New York City, 2001

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Preach One: Proper 19A

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

Exodus 14:19-31; Psalm 114; Romans 14:1-12; Matthew 18:21-35

It's true, what they say.  It couldn't have been a more beautiful day.  The sky was blue.  The sun was shining.  The air was crisp with the first hints of fall.  It was the kind of morning that makes you pause when you walk out the door, that makes you breathe deeply and smile involuntarily, that make syou glad to be alive.  It's true.  That's the kind of morning it was.

How the sky stayed blue, how the sun kept shining, I do not know.  Only the air changed, grew heavy with ash and astonishment, and how we kept breathing it, I do not know.  Only the air changed that day.  The air, and everything.

We were gathering in small groups to discuss a book by Rowan Williams, not yet Archbishop of Canterbury, but already a theologian of note.  "They think a small plane hit one of the World Trade Center towers," someone said, pausing in the door of the room where my group was meeting, and after a brief prayer for the pilot and whomever else might have been hurt or killed, we continued with class.  By the time we learned how immeasurable and unimaginable the loss really was, everything had already changed.

So is our gospel reading tonight is about something immeasurable and unimaginable, something that would change everything.  Jesus has just spoken with his disciples about how to handle wrongs committed within the community of faith.  Try to resolve it between the two of you, he said, and if that does not work, take one or two others along with you as witnesses.  If that fails, take the matter before the whole community, and if you still cannot be reconciled, treat that person as a Gentle or a tax collector.

Already, though, things were different, the disciples knew.  All eyes turned to Matthew, the one who tells us this story, the one who had collected taxes from them all.  The way Jesus treated Gentiles and tax collectors, the disciples knew, was not to turn them away but to welcome them, and embrace them, and forgive them, and invite them to follow him.

Rabbinic teaching at the time was that the one who had wronged another could be forgiven three times before exhausting all available forgiveness.  But things were different with Jesus, friend of Gentiles and tax collectors, and so Peter generously suggested that perhaps they ought to forgive as many as seven times, a number not only greater than three but also divine in nature, signifying wholeness and fullness.

No, Peter.  Jesus replied to everyone's astonishment.  You must not forgive seven times, but seventy-seven.  In Hebrew reckoning it was immeasurable.  Unimaginable.  Everything.  How many times do we forgive?  Always...

How we can keep breathing, I do not know, hearing such words on this day, the anniversary of that day when the air and everything changed.  It is all the more breathtaking for me when I recall that in the pages we were discussing ten years ago today, as the occasional siren of an emergency vehicle on Ninth Avenue became an unsettling steady wailing, Rowan Williams was reflecting on seeing the face of Christ in all persons who are victims of fear and violence, for Christ himself was a victim of our fear.  We nodded, thinking ourselves generous when we came across a passage in which Williams suggested that even the death of a terrorist (or a Gentile or a tax collector...) is a breach in which fear and violence have created a victim, and so, though the thought of it offends us, in that terrorist we must see the face of Christ.  Would we have nodded if we had known what was happening just three miles south of our ivory tower, and in our nation's capitol, and in the skies over Pennsylvania?

Today is not the first time this gospel reading has coincided with an anniversary of that beautiful, crisp, terrible, ashen morning, and it will not be the last.  Over and again on this day we will hear Peter ask how many times we must forgive, and over and again Jesus will answer, always.  And if that isn't hard enough, over and again Jesus will tell a parable to teach us that forgiveness does not end with the cancellation of some debt or injury or wrong-doing.  Forgiveness changes everything and demands that our lives be different.  It is the beginning of something new, or how else are we to understand Easter morning's empty tomb?  Life was different.  Everything changed.

Over and again when it coincides with September 11, we will have to remember that this gospel reading is not about what happened ten years ago.  This gospel reading is about what happened two thousand years ago, when God's immeasurable and unimaginable grace changed everything.  This gospel reading is about what is happening right now and in every present moment when those whom Jesus has welcomed and embraced and forgiven and invited to follow him gather together.  At this table we remember that our human condition makes us liable to fear and suspicion and wrong-doing...when we had fallen into suffering and death... We remember that by way of the cross, the victim, the Son of God, we are forgiven and so also liable to acts of amazing grace.

Forgiveness and grace, even resurrection itself, cannot undo.  Even as Christ bore scars of his suffering and death, so do our lives, our hearts, our minds, our spirits, and even our bodies show evidence of the ways we have suffered and have caused suffering.  Forgiveness does not deny this harm done.  It is not a condoning of sin, or an indifference to wrong.  It does not remove consequences or insist that the wrong be forgotten.  Forgiveness does not erase injury or restore what has been irretrievably lost.  Forgiveness cannot undo, but powerfully, immeasurably, unimaginably, forgiveness by God's grace remakes us from the ashes, breathes new life into us even when the air and everything changes.  For long before we were changed by September 11, long before we were or are or will be changed by any experience of grief or pain or terror or sin or violence or fear, we were changed by Christ, who even from the cross said, Father, what they do, forgive.

The forgiveness we offer, like the forgiveness we receive, allows us to move forward, to live again, to leave the tomb of our woundedness.  Forgiveness allows us to move forward unburdened by attention to what has injured us, unburdened by hate, unburdened by fear.  The forgiveness we offer, like the forgiveness we receive, frees us, remakes us, resurrects us.  Amen.

Photographs are all of the General Theological Seminary, New York, NY

Saturday, September 10, 2011


Well.  I have been preaching.  And I have been knitting.  But I haven't been blogging...

In tomorrow's gospel reading, Jesus will tell Peter that we are to forgive one another not once, not twice, not seven times, but seventy-times seven.  Which means, roughly, always.  Dear readers, I beg your forgiveness for my absence.

I'll catch up on the sermons later (if you come here for those, please come back soon!).  For that matter I'll catch up on knitting details later, too.  Forgive me!  But I'll catch up on knitting pictures now!

My Cedar Leaf Shawlette is blocking, soon to be featured in the fashion show of the Spartanburg Knitting Guild at their annual Knit-a-Way Retreat.  Mom is a member, and invites me every year to this wonderful weekend in the mountains of North Carolina.  Mountains plus yarn equals bliss.

This yarn, Manos del Uruguay Silk Blend in the Wildflowers colorway, is also bliss.  I loved it the first time I saw it as someone's Clapotis shawl, and while I have knit with lots of lovely yarns lately, this remains my favorite.  I actually finished this shawl back in February, and am just now getting around to blocking and showing it...forgive me.

These No Fuss Mitts in Louisa Harding Thistle are technically finished, and are also on their way to the Knit-a-Way.  Every year we are invited to make a certain kind of garment of knitted object - my first year it was dishcloths, last year it was hats, this year it's mittens or gloves - for a contest.  I love seeing them all displayed together in all their variety and creativity and color.  I may enter these just as they are, or I may try to add a little embroidery embellishment.  Depends on how the sermon writing goes.  Forgive me.

The Kudzu Shawlette I started on summer vacation, hopes to be blocked before I leave as well.  Again, the sermon thing.  Forgive me.  It will come with me either way - I've worn it once unblocked, and the drape of the bamboo blend yarn is lovely just as it is.

In the end, Jesus will tell us that forgiveness isn't about numbers at all - not even the number "always".  Forgiveness is about unburdening the heart so that healing can set in and we can set out in hope.  My hope is to return a little more often to this space, just as I have returned a little more often to my knitting lately.  My hope is to retreat faithfully so that I can work more faithfully.  My hope is to forgive with grace even as I have been graciously forgiven!