Sermon- Advent 1B

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Isaiah 64:1-9

O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence— as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil— to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence!When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect, you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence. From ages past no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who works for those who wait for him. You meet those who gladly do right, those who remember you in your ways. But you were angry, and we sinned; because you hid yourself we transgressed.

We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away. There is no one who calls on your name, or attempts to take hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us, and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity. Yet, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand.Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord, and do not remember iniquity forever. Now consider, we are all your people.

 

Where do we pin our hopes?

 

When we’re looking for the light in the darkness, where do we shift our focus?

 

The reading from Isaiah opens and closes with petitions to God. O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence— as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil— to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence! It’s a lament, a string of emotions and not necessarily a coherent and rational argument. There’s a strong invocation of justice – the God’s eye view of justice that flattens our false inequalities.

I spent last Monday night watching the news on Ferguson about a grand jury’s decision to not indict police officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of unarmed Michael Brown. I read so many articles online and watched on social media as my friends responded, many with anguish and heartache. I too, wondered: Why? Why do a swath of my fellow citizens feel so powerless that they see rioting as their only outlet for a voice? Why do authorities request peace while withholding the necessary ingredients of their own repentance and reconciliation? Why do so many look to the few looters so they can dismiss the many nonviolent protesters? Why does a narrative of fear and mistrust drive a wedge between neighbors and citizens? Why are certain important parts of our nation’s history with race swept under the rug and conveniently forgotten about?

These questions have been swimming in my head all week and my search for answers has only brought more frustration. Perhaps the best conclusion I’ve found to give you this morning is this: We need Advent. Advent is about the reality of the darkness in our world and the need for a savior and that need remains with us to this day. When we’re in literal darkness, what do our eyes do to adjust and help us see? (The pupils dilate so they can take in more light) Perhaps our practice in Advent is about widening our spiritual pupils, taking in more of the world around us and seeing it. Seeing darkness that still plagues the earth in systematic injustice, in cyclical poverty that we turn a blind eye to, in ignoring the humanity in those we can label as ‘other.’

But if we’re willing to open our pupils wide enough, perhaps we’ll find that darkness isn’t so much a force ‘out there’ but something rooted in our own sin. I’ll stand up here and be the first to tell you, I did well in U.S. History, and I am about a 12th generation Kentuckian, but it took some time to add two and two together. In fact, it wasn’t until a few years ago, I sat down with an aunt who had done extensive genealogy work for our family and she had so many interesting stories to share, but also, she showed me some wills that our ancestors drafted in the 1830’s “bequeathing” their property which included some ‘negro boys’ in their estate —  in no uncertain terms, my own ancestors’ livelihood, which was the foundation for my great-grandparents and my grandparents and my parents and ultimately for me, was built on the broken hearts and broken backs of slaves.

What do I make of this? These sins are not mine to confess, but if we take seriously the call to justice from Isaiah, these are my sins to repent. I love my family, and I’m grateful for the wonderful qualities I’ve inherited from them, but when my family narrative forgets the reality of the inhumane cost involved, we are diminishing justice.

What are the stories and narratives that bind us as families and as communities and as nations? Do these stories perhaps diminish justice? How do these stories inform our understanding of our selves and our role in the world? Where do these stories try to ignore or even justify collective sin and where does that collective sin manifest itself today?  I may not know Darren Wilson or Michael Brown, but as the author writes in Isaiah, we have all become like the unclean and our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth.

This Isaiah reading comes from the time of the return to Jerusalem after the Babylonian exile. It should have been a wonderful time. There were great expectations for favor and blessing in this time. But God’s absence is deafening. There’s anxiety and distress and they invoke God to act as warrior and champion for justice. They want a messiah and they want their Messiah to drive out the Romans and rebuild Jerusalem to its glory days. They want the muscles and the strength and the decisiveness and action. Remember that image in a little over 4 weeks when we meet an infant born in a manger.

The hope, the savior, the messiah that we’re preparing for this advent, he won’t return us to our glory days. Instead, he ushers in something new — the Kingdom of God.

Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”  Let us remember that network of mutuality in our own work to build the kingdom of God. Let us find the courage to listen with empathy to the difficult stories happening in our nation today.

The savior comes for all nations and peoples. The savior comes for the Michael Browns and the Darren Wilsons, the grieving mothers and the unsympathetic observers. The savior comes for the ones who know they need saving, and the ones who can’t recognize their own limits. For the slaves and the slave-owners.

The two petitions that open and close the reading from Isaiah?  The second one is this: Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord, and do not remember iniquity forever. Now consider, we are all your people.

We are all your people.

 

(Many thoughts here were inspired by a myriad of bloggers who’ve written well on the subject. One of particular note is Christena Cleveland, who you should check out now.)

Oh, the Deacon You’ll Be[come]

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On Friday, November 7, 2014, I was ordained a deacon in the Episcopal Church. A few days later, my friend Christie asked me about what it was like since she’ll be ordained in a few weeks herself. I started typing her my response and this is what I came up with:

 

It’s weird.

 

First off, many people will tell you congratulations. These people clearly have no idea what a deacon is. Of course it’s a new role that you’ve worked hard to make it to, but this role is about service to the poor and marginalized and obedience to ecclesiastical authority. “Congratulations” just feel wrong. The only way you can make sense of this entire event is through a generous, creative, and funny God and ‘congratulations’ seems to be giving you too much credit. That said, say ‘thank you’ for that card that might have a gift of cash that you plan on buying shoes with.

 

You will expect to arrive at the church and receive the attention and concern of your bishop and his staff. You won’t. They are stressed with last minute preparations and only want to make sure everyone is hitting their marks. But seeing their stress, you become that much more thankful for their work.

 

Vest carefully. Or at least hope that a kind colleague will point out that you forgot to button your alb on the inside. When clergy gather like this, the vesting room is weird. Some people know and love you. Some people size you up. Some people will give you advice on becoming clergy but be careful what you listen to. Some people’s advice says more about them than about the church.

 

During the procession, look solemn. That is, until you notice a cousin in attendance who you weren’t expecting but so happy to see. Now you can’t not smile. The service will go by in a flash. All you need to remember is to say your lines and don’t lock your knees. Be aware that heels plus a lacy alb might mean some tripping so be careful when you kneel.

 

After the service, it won’t really hit you. You won’t feel different, except for a little. There are way too many hands to shake and too much gratitude to express, but try anyway. Smile for the pictures. Breathe.

 

That evening when you check your phone, you will have 200 facebook notifications. Facebook notifications trigger a release of dopamine in your brain so this will make you giddy. That is a scientific fact.

 

On your ride home, you will be alone with your husband and he will ask you earnestly “What can I do to support your ministry?” and you’ll nearly cry because he’s already written seminary tuition checks and helped proofread papers at the last minute and spent his first wedding anniversary volunteering at a church strawberry festival and so so many other things that make him a supportive partner that you don’t deserve. “Please just remind me to laugh.” you respond to him. He then makes you laugh. These inside jokes will be your marriage glue.


You’re a deacon now. And I have to tell you, because there’s really no better word, CONGRATULATIONS!

A post in which I almost apologize for not posting

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When I was little, I would get lots of diaries and journals for gifts from my parents. It made sense to them: the teachers said their daughter was a good writer, and therefore she must enjoy writing and then we’ll give her these blank notebooks that she can turn into stories and tey can sell as books and make cash money and retire early off their daughter’s genius. Ka-ching! But most of those journals my parents got me, today they sit in their attic only filled in about 10 pages deep, with the last entry starting “Dear diary, Sorry I haven’t written in a while, but…”

My parents are still working.

True story: When I was accepted into seminary, my letter included an addendum informing me of the writing center at VTS, and that I was ‘strongly encouraged’ to seek help from it.

It’s hard to justify coming back into blogging when you could never really justify why you were in it to begin with. Let me try this: I’ve written to be seen and heard before and I’ve also found joy in those times and I’m not sure if it’s correlation or causation. And if it is causation, I’m not sure which is causing which.

So I’m back. Humbly, but not too humbly. Confidently, but not too confidently. Caution be damned.

Like Jesus.

Sermon- Easter 2b

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So I’m an entire week late in posting this, but it’s my sermon from last Sunday at the church I grew up in, Christ Episcopal Church, Bowling Green.

John 20:19-31

 

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “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. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!”Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

Let me ask a question that many of us might have been asked before, but it probably wasn’t in an Episcopal Church: do you have a personal relationship with Jesus? Maybe it seems like a loaded question- we live in a part of the country where it’s commonly used as a pretext for an agenda or as a litmus test for judgement, but since you can trust that you’ll get none of that from me, I’ll ask again: do you have a personal relationship with Jesus?

The thing is, personal relationships are sticky. They’re imperfect.  Personal relationships mean that we show both our good sides: our devotion and affection, as well as our less-than-flattering sides: our vulnerabilities, jealousies, and insecurities. We give our whole self to our relationships and don’t get to pick and choose.

In this morning’s gospel, we heard about Thomas looking for a hands-on faith. Literally. After missing out on seeing the resurrected Son, he’s dubious.  He couldn’t believe the resurrection until he touched Jesus’ own wounds. His so-called doubt isn’t about any lack of faith.

Put yourself in Thomas’s shoes: In a week, you’ve seen the person you’ve devoted your life to arrested, tried in a kangaroo court, tortured, and killed in the most humiliating and degrading way possible—and then, only a few days later, you go out to grab some food for your friends while you’re together mourning your loss, and you come back to them insisting that your teacher has come back to life!

Do you think maybe that will all seem a bit implausible—particularly in an emotionally raw state? It’s less a matter of “I’m not sure that really happened” and more a matter of “my heart simply can’t come to terms with that.” And he waits. He stays, and waits for one whole week.

Rachel Held Evans is an author just a few years older than me, from Dayton, Tennessee, and she wrote her book Evolving in Monkey Town: How a girl who knew all the answers learned to ask the questions. (her hometown, Dayton is famous or maybe infamous for being home to the Scopes monkey trials, where in 1925 the State of Tennessee accused school teacher John Scopes of teaching about evolution in the classroom) It’s a book about how her own faith grew from being full of unquestionable answers,  to one more open and honest. In it, she writes “Doubt is a difficult animal to master because it requires we learn the difference between doubting God and doubting what we believe about God. The former has the potential to destroy faith; the latter has the power to enrich and refine it. The former is a vice; the latter is a virtue.”

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Jesus did make himself known to Thomas. Thomas’ vulnerabilities, jealousies and insecurities did nothing to scare Jesus away. In fact, Jesus addresses the problem even before Thomas says anything to him—note that right after entering the room, before Thomas has a chance to say anything, Jesus tells him to touch his hands and side. At this point, Thomas has told just the other disciples that he wouldn’t believe until he’d seen. But Jesus addresses Thomas’s doubts even before Thomas has talked to him—and there’s no rebuke there, no judgment.

This is what our best relationships are like, right? People who know us so well that they just walk into a room and see us and instantly know what’s wrong, who love us for our quirks but aren’t afraid to take us to task when the things we value most about ourselves are getting in the way of our moving forward.

That’s the same way our personal relationship with Jesus can work. As luck would have it, God’s omniscience even includes knowing you inside and out, backwards and forwards, your past, your future, your present.

If Jesus walked into this room right now, he’d know exactly what you needed to hear and say it.

What do you think Jesus would say to you right now? would it be a word of comfort? challenge? rebuke?

—-that’s the seed of the personal relationship with Jesus – let him talk to you – too often prayer is about talking at God or using a conversation with God as a pretext for talking to ourselves or to others – what would you and Jesus talk about, if he were here?

I get a lot of comfort from those last words Jesus says in this gospel — “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet come to believe.” — he’s talking about every one of us here today. In a few moments when we share a meal we call the Eucharist and eat and drink the bread and wine that we somehow come to believe is Jesus. However we get there, it’s in that coming to believe that we will be blessed.

Good Christian B****es

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Okay, Hollywood- are you really giving us this show? I sometimes get edgy when the entertainment industry takes on spiritual issues. It often feels like they have no regard for their great contributions to the dialogue on faith. It’s my understanding that hospital shows like ER, Grey’s Anatomy and even Scrubs employed actual medical doctors to sit with the writers and tweak out the details of their profession to be shown accurately. Hollywood seems to take no similar measures with theologians.

But I’ll still watch it. Chalk it up to morbid curiosity. And that Kristen Chenoweth cracks me up.

The story begins with Amanda Vaughn’s lavish southern California house being repossessed after investigations into her late husbands illicit business dealings. In an act of desperation, Amanda and her two teenage children pick up and move back with her mother in a suburb of Dallas, Texas. If that prodigal son imagery weren’t blatant enough for you, Kristen Chenoweth’s character, Carlene Cockburn, takes time in church to recount that parable, except her version appears in no Bible I own, giving emphasis to the son’s deeply expressed repentance.

Except if this story really played out like the prodigal son, there would be no series, just a silly pilot that wouldn’t be able to sell it’s ad time. But maybe that’s the appeal of this show- highlighting that we are broken people living in a broken world, striving our best, yet failing horribly. And that in some places, it’s the most “Christian” among us that ignore this truth.

Hypocrisy can be funny. I’m going to give the producers of the show the benefit of the doubt and assume that that’s what they set out to show, but there’s a limited potential for humor there, in my opinion. I’m curious to see how long this show will last. Reviews were mediocre.

Did you watch the show- what’dya think?

(By the way, there’s a whole other rant I could’ve gone on about how I HATE the b-word. Another day, Cortney. Another day)

Sermon- Lent 2B, March 4, 2012

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Mark 8:27-38

Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.

Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

“They tried to make me go to rehab but I said ‘no, no, no’
Yes I’ve been black but when I come back you’ll know know know
I ain’t got the time and if my daddy thinks I’m fine
He’s tried to make me go to rehab but I won’t go go go”

Before rumors get started, let me clarify, these words aren’t mine, but the catchy refrain from that soulful hit by Amy Winehouse. This song won her a Grammy for best song of the year in 2008 and last July, Amy died of an overdose. It was tragic and unsurprising and tragically unsurprising.

It seems like a common story among all sorts of addicts, famous and normal alike. Don’t get me wrong, rehab really works wonders for some, but for others, something in the process of fixing their addiction seems worse than the addiction itself and all its sever side effects. Somehow no matter how far, how low they sink, sobriety’s just not worth it. It’s perplexing.

This morning we heard Jesus called to both the crowds and the disciples about becoming one of his followers. He asks them to take up their cross. He probably knew about our tendencies as humans to avoid what is hard, what is painful, to grow comfortable with our dependencies. And he also knew that following him would at some point require simply getting over this. The Christian walk asks more for us.

So when I hear those stories of Amy Winehouse and other addicts and their struggles with rehab, I have to catch myself before I get a little smug or judgemental. I stop and remind myself, I’m not so different. None of us are so different. Maybe my dependencies aren’t chemical in nature, but I still struggle daily, and go to great lengths to resist looking my demons in the eye. I’m just as prone to run away from my cross instead of towards it.

Suffering is as much a part of the good news as resurrection is. Peter is the one who gives voice to how unjust this sounds. His indignant reaction speaks a little too well to my own heart. I like my grapes seedless, my chicken boneless, and my savior painless. They tried to make me take up my cross, but I said no, no, no.

Come this May, it will have been five years since I graduated college and as it turns out because of my vagabond tendencies, each of those 5 years marks a different community that I’ve come to love, worship with, share my heart with and then leave. The leaving part never gets easier and for me has resulted in a number of nights spent crying in my pillow, dealing with the grief. Leaving South Africa was especially hard, and I tell people my memories of my last month there are literally a blur because of the tears that seemed to well up in my eyes almost constantly.

Each time I’ve gone through this grief, there’s a brief moment of cynicism where I remember, “Cortney, you could’ve avoided this all together. You could’ve rejected whatever call or nudge it was that brought you here.”  It’s a fleeting thought, because I quickly realize that there’s nothing I would trade for the relationships and experiences these communities brought me.

This suffering isn’t for naught. Here in 2012 we get the luxury of hearing this gospel passage knowing good and well that the Jesus story doesn’t end on Good Friday. In fact, the story doesn’t end at all. Our suffering, our losing our lives in the name of the gospel, won’t be the end of us, either.

It’s a question we get to ask ourselves every day: “They tried to make me take up my cross but I said…”

Amen.