I’m Lovin’ the Church

By the Reverend Joe Hensley, Rector, St. George’s Episcopal Church
Fredericksburg, VA

I recently shared a link on Facebook to a post by Greg Garrett on Patheos.com: “Why I am Still An Episcopalian.” I am so thankful for writers like him who eloquently and succinctly express some of the gifts of our tradition. It was one of those posts that seemed to resonate with a lot of people. Then a day later I got an email from a parishioner in response to my recent sermon (see post here). Her reasons for loving the church were also compelling, and I thought they needed to be shared more widely.

She wrote:

I thought about the “bread” and what it would mean to be willing to be consumed by others and for others. I also envisioned our church as a huge loaf of bread and many hands reaching up to take chunks off to eat. The loaf would never disappear but remain fresh and whole even as many were fed. As I reflected on your thoughts and what it means to be a Christian, I realized a few things. I love St. George’s and being Episcopalian. I love that a large part of what we do is have conversations about what it means to follow Christ and to love our neighbor. I love the fact that we discover the meaning by asking questions, not by memorizing answers. I think that part of our “welcoming” is an invitation to others to join the conversation, to add to the discussion, to discover for themselves what it means to live as a witness to the love of Christ.

I love that people love the church. Let’s keep sharing the love.

The Signs We Bear, The Bread We Bring

From the Rev. Joseph H. Hensley, Jr., rector, St. George’s Episcopal Church
Fredericksburg, VA | Proper 13 Year B, August 2, 2015

In this week’s Gospel lesson, the crowds ask Jesus: “What miraculous sign are you going to give us or do so that we may see it and believe you?” What sign will you do? At first we might want to dismiss the crowd – they just want Jesus to perform another miracle for them. They have seen him feed five thousand people and cure the sick already. Signs, though, are important in the life of faith. Many of us have probably asked God for a sign at some point in our lives. We gather here this day and every Sunday and Wednesday at noon to celebrate the sacrament of Holy Eucharist. The sacraments are outward and visible signs of God’s inward and spiritual grace. As the church, we are entrusted with these holy signs of God’s love. I believe we are also, as the church and as individuals, invited by God to lift up other signs as well in order to get the world’s attention, to remind the world of both God’s justice and mercy. What signs are we being, are we giving the world that we and they might see and believe?

When I talk about religious signs, our thoughts might flash to the literal sign wavers: “The End is Near – Repent” (or some other negative message I would rather not repeat in this pulpit) or “God loves you” or “John 3:16.” We may think of the church marquee signs that inspire faith with such words as “Don’t let worries kill you. Let the church help!” I was impressed by a picture I saw of an Episcopal church with a somewhat bold financial marquee message which read, “Tithe if you love Jesus. Anyone can honk.” I’m not sure if it got people to increase their pledge, but it was creative. St. George’s has our own “Wayside Pulpit,” and the communications and evangelism commission would welcome suggestions about ways to use that sign to really inspire passers-by. Signs, though, go much deeper than posters, billboards, and bumper stickers.

In the Old Testament lesson we heard today, the prophet Nathan has been sent by God to call King David to account for his many transgressions. He has been sent to be a sign of God’s justice. David’s story is worth retelling briefly. God chose David, a shepherd boy, over all his older brothers to be the next king of Israel. David fought and defeated the giant Goliath with only a sling and a stone. King Saul felt so threatened by him that he tried to have him killed. Eventually God gave the kingdom to David and David promised to serve God. His story is one of the Bible’s examples of how God’s grace can do anything.

But power corrupted David. One day he spied on a married woman named Bathsheba bathing on a rooftop. He used his power and authority to take her into his bed. Her husband, Uriah the Hittite, was a dedicated soldier serving abroad in David’s army. When Bathsheba became pregnant, David tried to cover the whole thing up, and when it didn’t work, he arranged for Uriah to die on the battlefield. Then he took Bathsheba as one of his wives. The scripture refers to her repeatedly as the wife of Uriah to remind us that David broke God’s law in so many ways. David, so faithful in other parts of his story, did wrong, really wrong. God sends Nathan to deliver that message. Nathan could have walked in with a big sign that said, “You are a sinner.” He might have gotten his head chopped off. Instead, he takes a more subtle approach and tells David a story of an injustice committed against a poor man by a rich man. When David reacts strongly against the actions of the rich man, it creates an opening for Nathan to present David with his own crimes. “You are the man!” he cries. Because of the story, David sees his own hypocrisy and is able to hear the truth about his actions. The story is a sign. It gets David’s attention so that David repents on the spot: “I have sinned against the Lord.” Psalm 51, which we said today, is attributed to David after Nathan confronts him about Bathsheba. The verses, “have mercy on me O God, according to your loving kindness,” show David’s contrition and his desire for God’s help. The sign was effective.

God’s prophets have not always been as clever as Nathan. Many prophets have faithfully shaken their fists at the powerful hypocrites without making much headway. Old Testament scholar Walter Bruggemann once noted that “It is permissible to talk about speaking truth to power. If truth is to have a chance with power, it must be done with some subtlety.” Perhaps this is why God sends Jesus. Jesus is so subtle, most people do not recognize him immediately as the son of God. They see him as a teacher and miracle worker, perhaps even a prophet, but Jesus is not a prophet with a sign. Jesus is the sign. Jesus is the one come to show us not only how we have wandered away from God’s path but more importantly how we are called to a new life. Jesus comes to show us what we can become through God’s grace.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus says, “I am the bread of life.” He is the sign of God’s sustenance: spiritual nourishment that can make all our earthly hunger and thirst seem insignificant. Jesus uses the image of bread, the basic food that sustained life in those days, to get the people’s attention and interest them in going deeper.

What signs, then, are we called to bear? There is so much injustice in the world. We can shout about the wrongs and condemn those who do them. How can we, like Nathan, bring a word of condemnation that inspires repentance? What signs might we perform that not only get the attention of the powerful but open their hearts? We live in a world that has been increasingly skeptical of religious people and their signs. If we tell people, “Jesus is the bread of the life,” they might respond, “I can’t have Jesus, then, because I’m on the paleo diet.” Lauren Winner, who keynoted the St. George’s Shrinemont weekend a few years ago, has a new book called “Wearing God…Overlooked Ways of Meeting God.” There is a great chapter about bread as a sign for God. She mentions a study of women with eating disorders: two-thirds of those women who regularly participate in Eucharist reported they received communion less often because they were worried about calories in the bread and wine. What signs do we offer for any people who have been victims of our culture’s love/hate relationship with food and the body? What signs are we offering the Bathshebas of our day, women who suffer unjustly? How can we say, “God loves you” in a fresh and authentic way to any of us who have been victimized? What signs will not further wound but will open our hearts, minds, and bodies to a deeper and life-giving encounter with God? This is the challenge of evangelism in our world.

During the latest General Convention, I saw several posts on social media asking whether Episcopalians were the snarkiest denomination, based on all the cynically witty posts we were making on Twitter and Facebook in response to happenings at Convention. It might seem harmless for religious people to put each other down in amusing ways. Meanwhile people with little interest in faith are scrolling past our posts without a second thought. What signs might we perform so that others see them and actually want to know more about a deeper, abundant, fulfilled life that is only possible through God’s grace?

Jesus said, “I am the bread of life.” In that statement, he invites us to become bread too. In her book, Lauren Winner talks about asking church people what kind of bread they imagine Jesus to be. Think about it: what kind of bread is Jesus for you? Winner says, by the way, that no one chose the convenient but barely edible wafers we use in communion! Her question makes me want to pose another question: If Jesus is the bread of life, and we are called to be bread too, then what kind of bread do we want to be? What kind of bread-like sign do we want to be, with God’s grace, that nourishes, delights, and invites a table conversation? Perhaps we are rolls gleaned from the sandwich shop to give away at The Table. Are we white or whole wheat or rye? Are we crusty on the outside with a richly textured interior? And we also remember the people who have been Christ-like bread for us. How can we share the miracles they have showed us?

One of the enduring images I have of grace comes from a story a friend of mine told about serving in the Army rangers. Once during a really tough field maneuver, a sandwich miraculously appeared from a superior officer at a moment when he needed both something to eat and a gesture of kindness. That bread and cheese was the body of Christ for him, and the story has stuck with me. Whatever bread we are, whatever sign we bring to the world, God can give us the grace to perform it with the cleverness, courage, and subtlety of Nathan the prophet, Jesus the Christ, and all the evangelists who preach the Gospel and, when necessary, use words. Signs are important. We may not be able to bring manna from heaven. We might, with God’s grace and in hopes of renewed life, give people something good on which to chew.

The Rhythm of the Table

By Linda Carter

In this undated photo, shoppers select produce at the Table at St. George's, Fredericksburg, VA.
Table shoppers selecting produce

There is definitely a rhythm to Tuesdays. When we get there at 6 a.m., there are our regulars already at the door, happy to sit and chat with their neighbors. People drift in to work and grab a cutting board, knife, and loaf of Jimmy John’s bread to start bagging. They know more than I do what needs to be done, and they chat about the past week. Nell describes a mentholated ointment that her sister sends to her from the Korean store in New York City that is good for sprains, congestion, and just about everything. Strangely enough? There’s no ginger in it. Ginger is a cure-all for those from her island.

Maurice and Mike are busy emptying boxes on to the tables. Richard is working magic with the plastic bags. Tom is running around looking for the coffee cup he’s lost again. They are dividing everything between the day and night Tables, counting sweets from Panera and Starbucks. Lots of new people today. Tim talks about having been laid off and needing food for his family. A number more of these folks need to be walked through the process for the first time. You can tell it’s difficult for them to be asking for food, but everyone welcomes them and encourages them to ask questions. My crew is the best. A volunteer comes in with Depends for a cancer patient who is being hugged and blessed by all.

I get to hold my Thanksgiving turkey! Back around Thanksgiving, Sarah’s grandson was born the day we were handing out turkeys for Thanksgiving; we got a call from Sarah explaining that she was at the hospital with her daughter and asking if we could get her turkeys to her home. Most definitely, I said, since it was on my way home. Now, he’s a charmer—almost 9 months old and happy. Children are picking out books from Becky’s collection.

This morning is unbelievably busy; 113 households come through in 90 minutes, and we still had food to give. We haven’t seen this many people since Thanksgiving, actually. A quick trip to the Food Bank with empty boxes to see what we can scrounge for the evening session. No dairy or cereal, but lots of juice and water. The crew has been restocking everything while enjoying pizza. We take a trip to the store to purchase cereal that we are really low on. Chris has things under control since the church has a funeral tucked in between Table sessions.

The afternoon crew has been arriving in dribs and drabs, but we will have more than enough to cover The Table for the evening shift at 5. Veggies have been checked; discards, composted. Our Wawa goods are restocked. Joe+, our rector, is juggling cantaloupes to entertain the crowd while a volunteer films him to send to his sister in Florida with a “my church is better than your church” note. Our Virginia Tech intern, Erica, is handing out samples and talking about produce and nutrition. The skies have opened up with torrential rains, but people are adapting and waiting for a break in the storms. A meeting is starting in the kitchen to plan the cooking classes we will be doing starting in August. Everywhere there are smiles and conversations and sharing. Downtown Greens arrives to pick up 210 pounds of compost. I began the day with one baby and end the day with another, a 3-month-old charmer who is here with Mom and Grandma.

Clean-up begins in earnest because we have a 12-step group who has been temporarily displaced from its church home coming in to Sydnor at 7 p.m. It’s still pouring, but things go like clockwork and the group is in by 7, not even a little damp. I am headed home to dinner and a glass of wine. There is definitely a rhythm to The Table. It runs on its own, even on its busiest days, without disruption.

Inventory is very low at the Fredericksburg Regional Food Bank right now. We are looking for items that do not have to be refrigerated. We are asking everyone to bring a box of cereal, a can of ravioli or stew, a small box of Velveeta or other shelf-stable (non-refrigerated) cheese, or shelf-stable milk to church on Sunday for distribution at The Table on Tuesday. If we see another 201 households on Tuesday, we will be very short of non-perishable items. We will have plenty of produce. Thanks to all.

God Offers Us Fullness

From the Rev. Joseph H. Hensley, Jr., rector, St. George’s Episcopal Church
Fredericksburg, VA | Proper 12 Year B, July 26, 2015

Ethiopian icon depicting the boy handing his loaves and fishes Hear again these words from the letter to the Ephesians: “I ask that you’ll have the power to grasp love’s width and length, height and depth, together with all believers. I ask that you’ll know the love of Christ that is beyond knowledge so that you will be filled entirely with the fullness of God.” The writer of Ephesians prays that his hearers will be filled with the fullness of God. In the Gospel story today, Jesus takes five barley loaves and two fish and fills the bellies of 5,000 people. Twelve baskets are filled with the leftover pieces. The good news is that God offers us fullness. God offers us fullness.

What is this fullness that God offers us? The crowd in today’s Gospel lesson keeps following Jesus around. They have seen his healing miracles, and they want to see more. When Jesus is able to feed them with just five loaves and two fish, they proclaim him a prophet and are about to make him a king. The crowd perhaps defines the fullness of God as power to fulfill our needs. When we are sick, God heals us. When we are hungry, God feeds us. When we are afraid, as the disciples were on the stormy sea later in the Gospel story, God comforts us. The crowd wants to seize that power to fulfill our needs. They want Jesus to be their prophet king who will provide whatever they need whenever they need it.

We are not so different from the crowd in the story. Many of us would define fulfillment as having everything we need. Or being able to do the things we want to do. We are looking for prophets and rulers too. We devour the latest books and social media posts about how to be happy, healthy, successful, rich. We form strategies and plans to cure the world’s ills, to create a better society for everyone. We would be really fulfilled if everyone had enough to eat and decent health care, and a meaningful way to support themselves and their family. The American dream: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. These are mere shadows of the fullness that God offers us.

I have been thinking about one character in the story who is not often discussed but who might hold some key to what it means to know the fullness of God: the youth with the loaves and fishes. This is an interesting detail in John’s account of this miracle. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, the disciples gather together the bread and fish from among themselves or members of the crowd. John is the only Gospel story where one person, a youth, has all the bread and fish to himself. It raises the question, why did this boy have all that food? Was he selling it? Was it for his family? It seems like more food than one person would consume alone. We are not told whether the disciples bought the food from him or asked for it or just took it. Can you imagine how he might have felt? Maybe he was thinking: “They are going to take my feast and break it into tiny bits to try and feed this crowd? There will be less than a crumb for everyone…it’s just as bad as throwing all my food away.” Maybe he was feeling honored that his food would go to the rabbi Jesus. Maybe he was just wondering what would happen next. Now imagine how he feels when he sees the disciples collecting the twelve full baskets of leftovers. We presume that he has eaten his fill and is now amazed to see more than he started with. The youth has gone from being full (having five loaves and two fishes) to being empty to being full again and with more to spare.

To be filled with the fullness of God, we, like the boy, are asked to offer the fullness we think we have. We become empty so that God can fill us in ways we cannot ask or imagine. So much of the world’s wisdom about fullness is about adding to what we already have, saving for tomorrow, accumulating more and more until we are finally full and satisfied. God’s fullness is less about accumulation and more about giving things away.

One of my favorite stories about fullness actually happened about seven years ago. I heard it on National Public Radio. Maybe some of you did too. (You can read it here.)  On a cold night in February, a 31-year-old social worker named Julio Diaz was stopping at his favorite diner in the Bronx, New York City, the way he did most nights. As he got off the subway platform, a teenage boy approached him, pulled out a knife, and demanded his money. Without hesitating and with a friendly “here you go,” Diaz gave the boy his wallet. He noticed the boy was not wearing a coat, so he called out to him, “Hey, you forgot something. If you’re going to be robbing people the rest of the night, you might want my coat to stay warm.” The teen looked confused. “Why are you doing this?” he asked.” Diaz replied, “If you’re willing to risk your freedom for a few dollars, you must really need to money. I was just going to get dinner. You’re welcome to join me if you want.”

The teen and Diaz went into the diner and sat in a booth. This was Diaz’s favorite place, and he was a regular, so everyone there was coming up and saying hello: the manager, the waiters, even the dishwashers. The young man was amazed. “You know everyone here, do you own this place?” “No,” says Diaz, “I just eat here a lot.” The boy wondered, “But you’re even nice to the dishwashers.” “Well I was taught to be nice to everybody, weren’t you?” The young man replied, “well yeah, but I didn’t think people really did it.” Diaz asked him what he wanted out of life, what would fulfill him, and the young man couldn’t or wouldn’t answer. He was just silent with a sad look on his face. Then the bill arrived. Diaz told the youth, “Look, I guess you’re going to have to pay for this bill, because you have my money and I can’t pay for it. If you give me my wallet back, I’d be happy to treat you.” The teen immediately returned the wallet. Diaz paid for the meal and gave the young man $20. Then he asked him for something in return…the knife. The young man handed it over.

I do not claim to have the power to grasp love’s width and length, height and depth. I do not claim to know much about the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge. I do not claim to be filled with the fullness of God at all times in my life. In a story like this one, I believe we catch a glimpse of Christ’s fullness; fullness that can live with some emptiness. The love of Christ does not always feed five thousand people. Sometimes it feeds only one or two souls. It is not the number that matters. What matters is our willingness to allow Christ to dwell in our hearts, to give up what we have and allow God to fill us far beyond what we could ask or imagine. To God who offers us that fullness and gives us grace to accept it be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever.

Come Away and Rest

Boys in a Pasture, 1874, by Winslow Homer.
Boys in a Pasture, 1874, by Winslow Homer.

From the Rev. Deacon Carey Chirico, Director of Outreach, St. George’s Episcopal Church
Fredericksburg, VA | Proper 11 Year B,  July 19, 2015.

The sounds of locusts buzzing lazily in the trees.
The call of the mourning dove.
The sky filled with pink and yellow.
The flicker of lightning bugs.

Summer brings warm days which slow us down – Moving slowly, eating early and late, napping at midday.
In our southern city, it is as if the earth itself is calling us to slow down, dragging on our arms and legs.

In many parts of Eastern Africa, there is a tradition of waking early before dawn to begin the morning chores and then moving outside to a pallet to lie back down until the sun covers and  wakes your body to a new day.

This is not so much a homily or a sermon as an ode to the warmth of summer, to the call of the planets on our bodies.  Rest, be still, they seem to say. Let the heat of the day pass.

Growing up in an urban neighborhood in the South left me curiously aware of the Sabbath day habits of other faiths. The orthodox Jews walked back and forth to services. Usually in small family groups, they talked animatedly to the children in their the midst, leaving a strong impression of the importance of this Sabbath day to the family. Around the corner and up the street, the bells of the Catholic Church called their congregation to order. The nuns who lived nearby walked together, but the families arrived by car, with sulky teens and well scrubbed children. Greek Orthodox, Methodist, Baptist all worshiped alongside each other with the bells of our Episcopal Church ringing out our service times.

If you grew up in the South, you many have heard of the book Being Dead is No Excuse, and while we laugh, there is more than humor there. Sundays may have had their traditions, but despite our church-going habits, “creating Sabbath” was not necessarily one of them. What is the first thing that comes to mind when I suggest to you – Come away and rest? Do you immediately picture all the things you need to do today? The unwashed laundry, the un-purchased food?

And yet, as our bodies long to slow down, so too, our souls crave time to renew.

Today we hear about Jesus who has spent weeks traveling around the Sea of Galilee healing, teaching and guiding – followed by an ever growing number of people in need, like sheep without a shepherd. We hear Jesus saying, “Come away and rest awhile.”Jesus leaving the constant and unending stream of need, to renew and to reconnect.

Sabbath is a concept older than our Scriptures. Sabbath in Judaism, Sabbath as Jesus would have known it – is a way of seeking God’s presence in time, not a place. It begins at sundown – and ends at the following sundown – defined as when three stars are visible in the nightsky. In Hebrew, the word Shabbat means the ‘remembrance of the act of creation.’

In the lighting of the evening candles we are recalling the act of the creation of light. Anger and indignation, strong emotions are discouraged as it is a time that is a metaphor for paradise. The six days of the work week are but a pilgrimage in the world on the way to the next Sabbath evening. The Hebrew word for holy is one of the most meaningful words in the Bible, rich in context implying ‘full of majesty and mystery.’

It is interesting to note that the first object in Scripture given this description is not a mountain, or an altar or a sacred spring… but a day. “And God blessed the seventh day and made it holy.”

It was on the seventh day that God gave the world a soul, says the great Jewish mystic, Abraham Heschel, “Six days a week we wrestle with the world, wringing profit from the earth; on the Sabbath we especially care for the seed of eternity planted in the soul.  The world has our hands, but our soul belongs to Someone Else.”

Time that calls to our souls
as the heat of the summer air
calls to our bodies.

And Jesus stopped, went apart and rested.

Perhaps he lit candles and welcomed in the Sabbath. Perhaps he recalled the prayers of childhood and said them over a simple dinner with his disciples. Perhaps he watched the sun set or got up early and soaked in the colors of dawn reliving the day that God gave the world a soul.

We spend a lot of time on sacred space. Do we know how to create sacred time?

Mystics would tell us that the Sabbath is a reminder of this world and the next – “For the Sabbath is joy, holiness and rest; joy is part of this world; holiness and rest are something of the world to come.” As a central tenant of Jewish life, it is a time of physical relaxation and spiritual renewal.

Come away and rest awhile. Amid the needs, the noise, the clamor of the world – come away and rest awhile. Not because the work of our weekly lives matters so little, but because the real work of our lives matters so much. Ours is the greatest of missions – to become a dwelling place for the Divine.

It is the season to rest, to recall to whom we belong and to whom we are the most beloved.

Amen.

Traveling lightly

From the Rev. Joe Hensley, rector, St. George’s Episcopal Church
Fredericksburg, VA | Proper 9 Year B,  July 5, 2015.

Repent: Creative Common Photo by David Holmes
Creative Commons Photo by David Holmes

Hear again these words from the Gospel according to Mark: “Jesus called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits. He ordered them to take nothing for their journey…So they went out and proclaimed that all should repent.”

With no bread, bag, or money, without extra clothes, with just a staff in their hand and some sandals on their feet, the twelve disciples went out and proclaimed that all should repent. Repent! That word carries with it quite a lot of baggage, doesn’t it? Repent. It conjures up images of hellfire preachers like John the Baptist shouting in the wilderness: repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent or perish! Jesus sends his disciples out to preach repentance, but I do not think he means for them or us to preach condemnation. As Jesus sends his disciples out empty-handed, I wonder if he also means for us to travel lightly, without so many assumptions about who is right and who is wrong. Perhaps our mission is to preach repentance in a different way, inviting each other to return to God and experience a change of heart.

That word, repent, in the Scriptures has a couple of meanings. One meaning is about turning around, turning from sin and re-turning to God. Another meaning is about changing one’s attitude, a change of mind and heart. So often, though, we do not think of repentance in either of these ways. We think of repentance in terms of apologizing for bad behavior. When I was in college at UNC Chapel Hill, there was a fire-breathing preacher who used to yell at us from the center of campus: “Repent!” and what he meant was, “Tell God you are sorry! Stop doing bad things like the other bad people. Come be like me!” Repentance has carried with it the connotation of self-righteous people talking down to the lowly sinners.

When Jesus sends out six pairs of disciples, empowering them to heal the sick and to cast out demons, does he want the message just to be, “Tell God you’re sorry!”? I think Jesus is interested in much deeper good news, good news that restores us to wholeness and holiness. Jesus is interested in our total transformation, a repentance that breaks open our hearts and expands our minds. Jesus is interested in our complete reunion with God, not simply in our saying “sorry.”

Confession and absolution of sin is a sacramental part of our tradition. It can be a sign of grace, part of the process of true repentance and forgiveness. One of the main problems of Christian religion, I think, is that we often get stuck in the weeds of whether we did something wrong and how to apologize for it. Repentance means arguing about what scripture says and who broke what rules. We point fingers, cast blame, and insist on apologies and penances. Penance can be helpful but only when it points toward healing. What the church has done, too often, is assign blame and punishment and then shake its head when people do not respond and then wander away. “When they’re ready to do it our way, then we will welcome them.”

Jesus sends his disciples out not to bully people into submission, but to break bread with them. Not to insist on their conformity to holy codes, but to heal. He sends his disciples out empty-handed and vulnerable so that they will have to rely on the hospitality and welcome of others. The message I hear in this is that when we preach repentance, it is perhaps best done around the dinner table, with an empty hand and an open heart. It is best done in a spirit of mutual hospitality, giving and receiving a loving welcome.

The Episcopal Church over the centuries, has done its fair share of bullying. We are in a place now, though, I think, where we recognize that the good news of Christ really needs to be more about wholeness, healing, and love. The good news of Christ is about a true change of mind and heart, a transformation that is deep and profound.

This past week, The Episcopal Church, meeting at its General Convention in Salt Lake City, invited a change of mind and heart when it began a formal process of expanding the definition of marriage in the church. To be clear about what happened, our church changed one of its governing laws (canons) and provided options for services so that Christian marriage could be open to couples of any gender. Many of us are excited about this change. It emphasizes our witness to the value of covenantal love. It removes more barriers so that the couples we believe to be holy can more fully participate in our common faith. Others may be confused or upset. Many people honestly wonder how the church can go against some of the Bible’s teaching about human intimate relationships. At times like this, it is easy to get thick into the weeds, arguing again about who has done what wrong and who needs to repent and apologize. I considered making this sermon more of a Bible lesson, trying to explain how our church can justify its actions from a scriptural basis. I would like to have that discussion, but not from this pulpit. The good news we are called to preach is so much greater than one side or the other presenting its argument.  I wonder if, this time, we can try a different kind of conversation, a conversation about repentance that is truly about transformation and returning to God.

No matter if we celebrate or lament the decisions of the church on marriage, I wonder if we might follow the example of the disciples whom Jesus sends. What would it look like if instead of approaching each other with arguments and points to make if we approached each other empty handed and ready to receive hospitality? What if we left our “baggage” behind? What would it look like if our call for repentance was more of an invitation to wholeness than a demand for conformity? The disciples preach a simple message, that all should repent. We all need transformation. We all need to return to God. We all need a profound change of mind and heart. What if we put every conversation about faith into that context: the desire for God to make us whole again. In that light, maybe we can get farther in our conversations about scripture, about righteousness. Maybe we can live into the words of our Bishop, Shannon Johnston, who wrote this week in summary of General Convention: In and through Jesus, we are committed to one another, not to the idol of like-mindedness.  Whatever we face and wrestle over, we find that all we can celebrate together still trumps the dividing lines.

What we celebrate together is the repentance that is offered to us, the change of heart and mind, the ability to return to God. We are not stuck forever in our sin. We are not stuck forever in our hard-heartedness. With God there is always a way. Travel lightly on the way, brothers and sisters. Travel lightly, so that we will be ready to receive the gifts that God has for us, the gifts we have for one another. Go and share the good news…repentance is offered to us, and so is new and abundant life.

When prayer comes around

By Russ Carter, leader of Stephen Ministry at St. George’s Episcopal Church, Fredericksburg, Va.

lightstock_131372_medium_helen_Recently, our family received some grave health news; we rushed home from vacation for a doctor’s appointment to discover that the dreaded C word had entered our lives.

Being an active Stephen Minister and a Healing Prayer minister at St. George’s, I fully understand the power of prayer. After informing our biological family, we turned to our spiritual family; we also turned to God. When we brought our fears and concerns to St. George’s, we were greeted with prayers and embraces, with members of our community surrounding us with love. When we told the members of the Table, Linda’s crew, along with Carey, circled her praying for God’s comfort. Reverend Bob Miller brought God’s Love to Linda with a ceremony of the laying on of hands.

Many different pastoral care groups brought their love and God’s Love to us. Linda recently received a blessed prayer shawl from the members of the Prayer Shawl commission. Each time she wraps herself in the shawl, she feels the love and comfort of the women who bring the comforting gift of God’s Love through their talents.

Over the course of two weeks, we were prayed over and comforted by the blessings of God. We were not allowed to dwell in doubt or uncertainty. The blessings and comfort came from the never-ending love and care of our spiritual family; our friends at St. George’s brought us God’s Love. The night before the surgery, the Table crew came to our home with more of God’s Love. We were both surrounded by God’s comfort, as Carey led us all in prayer.

Between the love of Joe, Carey, and our daughter, Megan, we received great comfort (and company) the day of the surgery. Prayers for comfort transformed into prayers of thanksgiving. Prayer is the centerfold of our existence. The Love of God and the love of our family at St. George’s are things of beauty.

Through this entire ordeal, with doubts and fears creeping into our lives, Linda always had the strong faith that all would be well. She was correct; all turned out well.

As a prayer minister, I always feel the power of God, when praying for and with others; it is a very profound feeling of God’s Love between two of his children. As a recipient of this prayer, and a very strong faith in God, we are blessed by powerful nurturing forces that I pray that others will find through the love of our prayerful family of St. George’s.