Do You Need to Be Silenced?

We have been told so many times that Christmas is God’s gift to us that I think we sometimes relax into a problematic complacency.

Christmas and the coming of the Christ Child absolutely is a free and unmerited gift to us—God gives Godself to us in the Incarnation with no strings attached.

But what we forget is that if we choose to participate in this process, we will be changed.

Advent is actually all about change.

The valleys are being lifted up and the hills are being made low.

Our entire internal landscape is being rearranged—or it should be, if we have not gotten too deaf and numb to God’s presence in our lives.

This time of year it’s easy to bounce between frantic, consumer-driven gaiety and frightened depression at the state of the world and its violence.

But somewhere in the middle of the swirling commotion is a still point, where the chaos that comes from God and not from the world can reach our hearts and gently, lovingly, slowly turn us inside out. Continue reading

Jesus Says “Keep Your Chin Up”

Happy New Year!

That’s right, today is the first Sunday of Advent, the beginning of the new liturgical year, and Jesus starts us off with a bang. We’re going to have to find the Good News within these texts, because honestly on the surface they seem like bad news.

“People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken,” Jesus says. “Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly, like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.”

Goodness. That’s dramatic. And pretty scary.

Apocalypse always seems like bad news to those of us who have power and wealth.

But remember, apocalypse, the total upending of the universe’s order, seems like Good News to the poor, the marginalized, and the oppressed.

For them, God coming in and blowing up everything and starting over with justice and mercy sounds brilliant.

Apocalypse is only bad news to those of us who think we have something to lose.

But there’s one verse that jumped out at me that definitely is Good News, even for those of us who are at the top of the pyramid and can’t always identify with Jesus’ audience. And that verse is this: “Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”

Stand up and raise your heads.

Or as your mom might have said to you when you were a kid, “Hold your head up and your shoulders back, you weren’t born under a rock.”

Or, when she saw you were feeling down, “Keep your chin up.”

This is an interesting instruction from Jesus, one of the only ones I know of in the gospels where he gives us a commandment for our physical posture. Continue reading

Oscar Romero and the Voice of Truth

I’m going to take a page out of Davies’ book and do something today with my preaching that I rarely do: use a visual aid. And that visual aid is my prayerbook.

This combination prayerbook/hymnal was given to me by St. Michael And All Angels Episcopal Church in Dallas at the conclusion of my internship with them when I was in college. It has my full name, Whitney Elizabeth Rice, embossed in gold on the front, and I never enter a liturgy without it.

But I’m here less to share with you this prayerbook than to share what’s inside it.

I’ve found that the extraneous contents of a priest’s prayerbook, what he or she has paperclipped or taped inside it, are interesting and revealing.

And one of the main pieces in mine relates to our feast day today, Christ the King. So let me give you the full tour.

I only have one thing inside the front cover: a yellow sticky note with 36:5-11 written on it. That’s the verses of the psalm text for Monday in Holy Week.

Ever since I became a rector back in 2011, I’ve done a Eucharist every day of Holy Week, but because the Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday services are so simple, I’ve never had bulletins printed—we just do the service right out of the prayerbook.

And without a bulletin, I need to know what the texts are, especially the psalm, which I’m usually leading away from the lectern. So that sticky note stuck, and every year it helps me get Holy Week off to a good start.

I have a lot more things clipped in the back of the prayerbook.

First are the words of emergency consecration. Continue reading

True Confessions of a Convicted American Consumer

I finally did it.

I finally got rid of the stationary bike in my apartment that had long served as an impromptu clothes rack.

Even the shame of admitting I never used it could not overcome the freedom I felt when it was gone.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about consumption. The verdict: I am a big-time consumer.

A series of blog articles and books has led me to evaluate the amount of “stuff” I have in my life, and I don’t like what I see.

I have long felt convicted by Jesus’ economic teachings. Over and over in the gospels he says things like, “Sell everything you have, give the money to the poor, and then come, follow me.”

And I feel exactly like the rich young man in that story, who goes away discouraged and downhearted “for he had many possessions.”

That young man gave up the chance to travel and learn and live with Jesus because he loved his stuff so much.

His stuff kept him imprisoned.

I’ve finally realized that I’m running much the same risk. Continue reading

Wars, Elections, and All Souls

How is everyone this morning?

I wondered how I might need to open this sermon on the first Sunday we join in worship after our midterm elections. But it turns out that no matter what your political affiliation, you ended up getting some of what you wanted and some of what you didn’t want.

And you are more than likely asking yourself: given the situation we are in now as a nation, what is our role as people of faith? How can we go forward together with integrity and compassion?

The election is of course not the only thing on our minds and hearts on this Feast of All Faithful Departed, also known as All Souls’ Day.

We gather together today to remember those we love and see no longer, the people who have formed us, loved us, hurt us and healed us, called us to deeper faith and blessed us with their lives.

Some of those people died far too early, others lived long and rewarding lives.

Some lingered through painful illnesses, some were taken away swiftly.

Some of our beloved departed are vivid in our memories, with years of stories and songs and laughter that come to mind.

Others are only imagined composites we’ve pieced together because they are too many generations back for us to have known them ourselves.

In a confluence of spiritual ideas that I can only attribute to the Holy Spirit, today we walk through the aftermath of a hotly contested election and celebrate All Souls’ Day on an important historical anniversary. Today is the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I.

On November 11, 1918, at 11 a.m.—the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month—the guns fell silent and what was known at that time as the War to End All Wars concluded at last.

Place yourself, if you can, in the shoes of an Indiana Episcopalian on November 11, 1918. Continue reading

HIV/AIDS, Opioids, and The Public Health Crisis of Moral Blindness: We Need Bartimaeus

I have long held that Blind Bartimaeus is not the main character in his own story, or at least the only main character.

When we take Bartimaeus as the focus of this passage in Mark, we do receive many important lessons. We reflect on things like persistence, trust, and responding to the call of Jesus, being brave enough to walk toward him even when we can’t see where we’re going.

There’s also a deeply meaningful interpretation around the significance of Bartimaeus “throwing off his cloak,” as the text says. A beggar’s cloak was a vital part of his economic viability and daily survival, and to throw it away was a huge risk.

But I realized several years ago that there is another moving story layered under the main story in this passage.

Bartimaeus is not the only one whose life is changed irrevocably in this encounter with Jesus.

This is a conversion story, but it’s not necessarily Bartimaeus who is converted. Continue reading

James’ and John’s Terrible Interview Skills

My exegetical life began very early.

When I was little, I frequently heard in church about Jesus “sitting on the right hand of God.”

And when I was about 5 years old, I asked my father, “Dad, doesn’t God’s hand get tired if Jesus is sitting on it all the time?”

I may have been a literalist, but you have to admit it’s a good question.

Of course my five-year-old self was not only anthropomorphizing God to an extreme, but also did not understand the cultural significance of sitting at God’s right hand.

This was an allusion to monarchy. When the king sat on his throne, someone sat immediately to his right and immediately to his left. And those people were his trusted aides and agents.

We still hearken back to this custom when we call someone “my right hand man.”

The people seated to the left and right of the king are second only to him in authority and power. When they go out into the world, they speak with the voice of the king. They act on his behalf.

And they are treated with the same dignity, pomp, and circumstance as the king, because they are his hands and feet in the world.

James and John, in our gospel story today, definitely understood this. In fact, they were counting on it. Continue reading

Kavanaugh, Empire, and Confession

I’ve come to a new understanding this week of how the wrath of God can be comforting.

Now that’s a pretty scary statement, isn’t it?

Well, I’m just trying to make sure you’re awake, and after all, Halloween is only a few weeks off. Let me explain what I mean.

I don’t mean “the wrath of God” as in God dangling people over a lake of fire and taking delight in punishing them for their sins.

What I mean is that there comes a time when human beings really lose their way, when they elevate petty, selfish goals over ideals like truth, defending the oppressed, and protecting the vulnerable.

We do that as individuals, and most of all we do that as a body politic.

And when that happens, in the church and in the world, we lose both the ability and the credibility to articulate justice.

At moments like that, we need something more and something higher than humanity’s best attempt at righteousness. We need God’s righteousness.

We need the searingly clarifying reminder that the other pole to God’s mercy is God’s justice.

Mercy always triumphs, but justice creates the conditions for mercy to flourish. Continue reading

What To Do When You Don’t Like What the Bible Says

I came very close this week to doing something I have never done before.

I came very close this week to cheating and not preaching on the assigned scriptures for the day.

There’s no way around it, they’re just awful.

But I’m not one to run away from a challenge, so let’s see what we can make of them. Even if we come out of this only having learned that there are some parts of the Bible that just do not feel like Good News, at least we will have engaged honestly and asked the Holy Spirit to reveal to us why we had to read these lessons today.

Job is a deeply problematic text.

People for generations have found comfort in Job’s stoicism through suffering.

I admire Job’s stubbornness, but God in this text?

As Virginia Woolf said, “I read the Book of Job last night. I don’t think God comes out of it well.” Continue reading