by whitneyrice

PaIm Sunday: Proving Scripture Wrong

Palm Sunday is an invitation of the most extreme kind.

If you picture a polite and proper written invitation to an important event, it’s usually on pretty white paper and arrives quietly in your mailbox with a diffident request for an RSVP.

Palm Sunday is an invitation to events that shatter the status quo and reconfigure the universe, and it arrives with strikes of lightning, booms of thunder, and crowds shouting themselves hoarse in the streets of Jerusalem.

We are here now to make our answer to the invitation of Palm Sunday.

Jesus is hailed by the crowds today, and we throng along with them, waving our palms with bright, self-congratulatory allegiance to our matchless king.

And then we have a choice.

Many of us will go home and not darken the door of spiritual encounter until Easter Day.  But that is a mistake.

As your priest, I’m selfish and I hope you come to some of the darkly beautiful liturgies that lie before us this week.

But what I really want is for you to enter the sanctuary of your heart to be with Jesus.

Whether you come to this building between now and next Sunday is beside the point.

Verse 12 of Psalm 31, our psalm for today, struck me as I began to work with Holy Week this year.

“I am forgotten like a dead man, out of mind.”

In some ways, I feel like this is Jesus’ greatest fear. Continue reading

Useless Love: Bethany and Leningrad

Realistic. Practical. Sensible. Those are words we all like to use to describe ourselves and our churches.

We are Christians who believe in an amazing story of death and resurrection, but in the end we have to come back down to earth and live in the real world.

Someone has to make sure the budget balances.

This is exactly the attitude of Judas in our gospel story today, the attitude Jesus condemns.

We don’t normally think of ourselves in the same category with Judas.

And a great deal of the time, those practical considerations do need to guide our behavior as individuals and communities.

But Jesus profoundly values Mary and her gesture in this gospel.

He finds her pouring of fragrant oil over his feet and wiping them with her hair deeply meaningful, and he will not allow this beautiful, intimate moment to be ruined by the mean-spirited practicality of Judas.

What makes Judas even more blameworthy—and even more of a warning to us!—is that he overlays his criticism of Mary with a virtuous moral justification.

“We could have used that money to serve the poor!” he laments with outward heartfelt piety and inward smug self-righteousness.

Have you ever seen this happen at church?

Someone takes the moral high ground, not out of love but because it places him or her in a position to score points on someone else.

“I’m more Christian than you are,” is a game that has no winners.

Jesus saw this and Jesus cuts right through Judas’ posturing.

In this moment, Mary and her gesture mean more than Judas and his proposed action.

That’s hard for us action-oriented Americans to take!

All the beautiful gestures in the world won’t get the pledge campaign launched or the nave vacuumed or the food pantry stocked.

Or will they? Continue reading

How To Bless God Even When You Feel Like You’re Stuck In a Pigsty

As we build our life of faith, we ask to be conformed to the Mind of Christ, so that we might be ever more able to live faithfully as the Body of Christ.

And part of that process is taking on some of the characteristics of God—as lofty and intimidating as that might sound at first!

We usually think of asking God to bless us. But in the Way of Love, God is asking us to bless the world.

And all of our spiritual practices make us ready to say yes to that calling.

Many of us might feel pretty inadequate to take on something as big as blessing the world.

In that, we have something in common with our brother the Prodigal Son.

In our story from Luke today, one of the most well-known and beloved in the gospels, we hear of a young man who made certain choices.

To some, those choices might seem rash, selfish, and short-sighted.

To others, they may simply seem like the folly of youth.

The Prodigal Son actually sounds eerily like a denizen of 21st century America, a natural product of a highly individualistic, self-centered, and hedonistic society.

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The Wild Prayer of Lent

If wilderness is the landscape of Lent, then prayer is the road that takes us there.

We live in a blind and busy city most of the time, a crowded confine of social norms, work and family obligations, and a general “business as usual” status quo.

It can be difficult to sustain a dedicated prayer life in the chaotic swirl of trying to keep up with our calendars, care for our dear ones, and cope with the unsettled tension of our common life.

The great gift of Lent is the call into the wilderness. It is an invitation to let the dust of daily life settle, and the graced silence of the desert begin to soothe and open our weary hearts.

But the wilderness cannot invade the city. It can’t come knock on our doors and drag us out into an encounter with the Holy.

We have to say yes.

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Trump in the Desert

Our gospel story today from Luke is the most sustained inside look at Jesus’ private spiritual life that we get anywhere in the Bible, along with his experience in the Garden of Gethsemane.

How interesting that we are allowed inside to see his heart at his moments of greatest trial and temptation.

How very like Jesus to humble himself and show us his moments of greatest danger and even near-defeat, to help us know more solidly than ever how present he is to us when we are tempted, tried, and tested by life.

What are the three temptations Jesus faces from the Devil really all about?

Jesus rejects “power, prestige, and perks,” as Richard Rohr puts it. He resists the temptation to manipulate his environment, manipulate his position in society, and manipulate God.

But at a deeper level, he’s rejecting the temptation to take on a false identity.

He will not be the dominator, the miracle worker, the king, the favorite of God. Because that is not who he is.

I was talking with some friends last night about the destructive and often frightening specter of President Trump and what he means in our country right now.

It can be tempting for those of us who find his racism, misogyny, xenophobia, and unrelenting stream of lies exhausting and demoralizing to call him evil.

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What to Do When You’re Squeamish About Miracles

The great twentieth century mystic, Thomas Merton, was standing at the corner of Fourth and Walnut in downtown Louisville when he had a great revelation.

“I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness…I have the immense joy of being [human], a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now that I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.”

Walking around shining like the sun.

That is apparently what Moses was doing after his encounters with God on the mountain.

And that is what Jesus was like in the Transfiguration.

Jesus put aside his glory because he had a lot of specific work left to do in the world and he couldn’t do it if people were so awestruck by him in his glorious form that they fell on their faces and trembled at the sight of him.

It was hard enough to avoid doing that when he healed people and multiplied loaves and fishes looking like a perfectly ordinary person.

Not twenty minutes after the Transfiguration Jesus was back down in the marketplace healing a young boy with epilepsy and going about his good work.

Jesus didn’t need the appearance of physical glory to get people’s attention. The goodness that flowed out of him nonstop did that all on its own.

But why did Moses hide the evidence of his encounter with God?

Why did he veil himself when his face was shining? Continue reading

The Measure of Our Ministry

As we come together in worship today, this is the first time I’m speaking to you from the pulpit since I announced that I am leaving St. Francis In-The-Fields and my associate position here. 

And I think we should talk about it. 

It’s not so much about me and the fact that I’m leaving—I’m only one of a long line of priests who have served this congregation, and you will have many more capable priests serving you in the future. 

No, what matters is that we take time to acknowledge that we’re experiencing a season of change in our common life.

We need to mark and signify the reality of what we have meant to each other as associate and congregation, and seek wisdom from our scriptures to help us make sense of what our common call to ministry has been in these last three years.

What have we done together with the time that God has given us as partners in ministry?

How have we enriched one another’s spiritual growth?

And how do we give thanks for our time together, grieve our parting, and take the influence we’ve had on each other into a new season of ministry with new people?

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Fishing Beneath Futility

The message of all of our scriptures today is: “I’m not very good at this.  I don’t think this is working.”

“Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” Isaiah says. 

“Do not abandon the works of your hands,” the Psalmist pleads to God. 

“I am the least of the apostles,” Paul says, “Unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.”

“Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing,” Peter says.

“I’m not very good at this.  I don’t think this is working.”

Have you ever felt like that in life?  In ministry?  I certainly have.

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Shoving Jesus Over a Cliff and Other Bad Habits

Here’s a heads up for all you aspiring preachers out there. Don’t ever be snotty about a scripture passage or someone will challenge you to preach on it.

That’s what happened to me.

I arrived at 4 Epiphany and the 1 Corinthians 13 passage came up.

I immediately groaned, visions dancing through my head of skimpily dressed bridesmaids and questionably sober groomsmen staring off into space while this text was read at weddings I’ve officiated and attended.

My inner cynic popped up—overdone! Trite! Boring!

A friend immediately called me on it.

“1 Corinthians 13 is a beloved scripture. If you think it’s so dumb, why don’t you preach on it?”

Well, I couldn’t let a challenge like that pass me by.

And he’s right. It is a beautiful scripture, that’s the reason it has been so used so many times that it has become clichéd.

It’s theologically sound, and considering many of St. Paul’s works, quite pastorally sensitive.

I just have such a hard time stepping back and appreciating it for what it’s worth.

Even in my mind when I think of it, I recite it like a bored teenager: “Love is patient, love is kind, love is not envious or boastful, blah, blah, this is dumb, I’m going to update my facebook.”

This is exactly the moment when visitors to our congregation could rightfully ask, “And this woman is a priest?”

Yes, I am, and clergy are not immune to being unable to value the treasures that are right in front of them.

We have a perfect example of the phenomenon in our gospel today, when Jesus’ hometown friends and family try to throw him off a cliff. Continue reading

Binding Up The Brokenhearted: Tag, You’re It

          Today in our gospel we read of Jesus beginning his public ministry.  It reminds me of one of my own new beginnings in ministry: my first day of seminary. 

I remember showing up at the registration table the first morning of orientation and seeing all these extremely well put together people and thinking, “Um, I’m not sure I belong here.  I wonder if McDonald’s is still hiring.”

Intimidated though I was as I looked around at my new classmates, I got my nametag and folder and tromped determinedly upstairs to the very crowded Common Room. 

The tables were all full of these important looking people and I lost my nerve a little bit.  

So I went over and sat in a chair next to the wall, thinking here’s a nice inconspicuous place where I’ll only have to talk to one or two terrifyingly overqualified people at a time, not a whole table full. 

Not too long afterward, a petite brunette woman in a red suit came and sat next to me.  Her nametag read, “Anna Ramirez, Dean of Admissions.” 

I thought, “How nice of her to come and mingle with the students during breakfast.”

Well, the room got more and more crowded and the chairs around me in the row next to the wall started filling up. 

I noticed that everyone sitting around me was wearing a suit and seemed somewhat older than I was, but I didn’t think much of it. 

I didn’t think much of it, that is, until someone set up a lectern and a microphone two seats away from me. 

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