Salty Christians: A Taste of Infinitude

From the Rev. Joseph H. Hensley, Jr., rector, St. George’s Episcopal Church
Fredericksburg, VA | Proper 21 Year B September 27
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Text of the sermon as prepared:

At the end of our Gospel passage from Mark today, Jesus gives some perplexing teaching: “Salt is good, but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.” In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus puts it this way as he preaches the sermon on the mount, “You are the salt of the earth.” What does it mean to have a salty faith? How are we to live out this call to saltiness? “Have salt in yourselves,” Jesus says, “and be at peace with one another.”

Here are some things we know about salt both in Biblical times and today. Salt is a seasoning for food. It is a preservative to prevent spoiling. Salt is a nutrient necessary for life. Salt is medicinal. This summer I cut my foot on our family beach trip. I went to my sister-in-law, who is a doctor, and asked her what I should do about it. She told me to go put it in the ocean, of course! That salty water heals all ills. Mahatma Gandhi performed one of the most famous acts of civil disobedience in modern history when he marched to the Indian Ocean and defied British tyranny by making salt. Gandhi’s salt march makes me think that salt can be symbol of liberation. The Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda, once wrote an ode to salt. In his poem he imagines the salt on our tables as connected with the mines deep in the earth, connected with oceans, connected with ancient ships and every meal we eat. He writes, “the smallest, miniature wave from the saltcellar reveals to us more than domestic whiteness; in it we taste infinitude.” In salt we taste infinitude, the limitless connections between all of God’s creations.

When we hear Jesus talking about having salt among ourselves, we can draw all kinds of connections with these images of salt that I have just described. We help to bring out the delicious flavor of the world with our acts of love and compassion. Our commitment to a larger communion, the body of Christ, preserves us against the spoiling of a self-centered world. When we act together as that community of faith, we can be agents of physical and spiritual health and healing. God uses us as agents of liberation and justice. At rare moments, we may without realizing it reveal a taste of God’s infinitude. I was exploring this theme with our guests from Tanzania, my friend from seminary, Bishop James Almasi and his Diocesan secretary, Canon Geoffrey Patrick. They are visiting Fredericksburg for a few days as part of a larger North American trip. Welcome! Canon Geoffrey remarked as we were talking about this passage that salt makes one thirsty. We Christians can be the salt which makes people thirsty for the living water of God. We could spend a long time imagining what Jesus might mean when he says for us to be salty.

The problem many Christians have, though, is that we sometimes get a little bit carried away with our saltiness. It’s not enough for us to bring the flavors of the dish together, we need to dominate the stew. It’s not enough for us to heal the wound, we need to make it sting a little bit. I think of the disciple, John, in today’s Gospel. John, the brother of James: the “sons of thunder.” John and James who will later come to Jesus to ask for the seats of honor when he comes in his glory. John and James who go up on the mountain with Jesus at the transfiguration. That John. He’s a salty sort of disciple, and he comes to Jesus saying that someone else, someone they didn’t know, someone who wasn’t part of their little group, has been casting out demons in Jesus’ name. The nerve of some people, right?! But don’t worry, Jesus, we took care of it, says John. We told him he couldn’t do that, because he wasn’t part of our group! You can just see Jesus shaking his head, “John, John! Do not stop him!”

Christian faith is not a game with insiders and outsiders. Christian faith is not about who has the most salt or the right kind of salt. I find it interesting by the way that these days in our cooking culture there is a gourmet thing going on with salt. Somehow the food tastes better if the salt was mined from deep inside the Himalayan mountains where it has become infused with nutrients over thousands of years. This is how we sometimes look at our churches. Which church in town has the saltiest music or theology or outreach or youth programs? You’d better believe it’s our church and not that church down the street. We are the saltiest. I’ve been encouraged by the Pope’s visits this week, because he is reaching out across church boundaries, but I can just hear some people saying, “If only he were an Episcopalian!” This is a stumbling block, the kind of stumbling block which Jesus warns against in the Gospel today. This kind of Christian smugness is just the kind of thing that makes a lot of people want to run in the other direction. They can taste the salt, and it turns them off. I don’t know that this is a big problem at St. George’s, because I think we’re trying to live our faith without having to make a big show or tell others they have to do it our way. But to the people who never come to church, we look like a big pillar of salt, and all they see is crusty corrosion. All they see is too much overpowering flavor that’s going to dry up their souls like a slug. They expect us to come out of here saying, “come be salty like us but only if you’re willing to follow our rules and do things our way.” That’s the stumbling block we have to be aware of, the stumbling block of our insider traditions that keep others on the outside and even pushes them away.

One place where I see just the right kind of saltiness is at The Table, our market style food pantry on Tuesdays. We say we are feeding people, but really we are providing a container. We put a bunch of people together, some rich, some poor, and some in between. We give them a bunch of food, some fresh, some canned, some dried. Then the most delicious dish emerges, seasoned by all our gifts. Jesus says to have salt among ourselves, and then he says, be at peace with one another. That word, peace, means wholeness and fulfillment. It means having the perfect amount of saltiness. It means all the flavors come together just so. It means that we do not have to worry about providing all that is needed. God has already provided the salt. If only the disciple John had said to the person who was also casting out demons, “hey where did you learn how to do that–and maybe we can learn from you?” It would have changed the whole equation. What if our guiding principle for evangelism (that’s the “e” word that we in the Episcopal Church are afraid of sometimes) was inquiry not inquisition? Curiosity not curatorial lecturing? God wants us to be at peace, whole and complete, which we can only know when we stop drawing lines of inside and out and realize that God’s grace has drawn a line around us all. We have all been seasoned with grace. We have all been salted with love. We have all been given a capacity to bring out the flavor in each other, to heal each other’s wounds, to proclaim each other’s liberation, to seek the infinitude, the limitless connections in and among and through each other’s lives. We do not need to try to be salty. With God’s help, we may discover each other’s saltiness. With God’s help, we may remove the stumbling blocks, the corrosive pillars of salt, and inspire each other to taste the infinitude; taste and see that God is good.

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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.

God is with us

From the Rev. Joe Hensley, rector, St. George’s Episcopal Church
Fredericksburg, VA | Proper 7, Fourth Sunday after Pentecost, June 21, 2015

Creative Commons image by Fr Lawrence Lew, O.P.
Creative Commons photo by Fr Lawrence Lew, O.P.

In the Gospel lesson we just heard from Mark, Jesus’ disciples are shouting. In the middle of the lake, in the midst of a howling gale, in a boat that is beginning to sink, they shout at Jesus, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” These are words that could come easily out of our own mouths. We, too, have known storms in our lives, storms where it seemed that chaos had the upper hand. Teacher, do you not care that we are drowning and perishing? Today, we gather in this place that is sometimes called a sanctuary, perhaps wondering if this is a safe place. We may be wondering if God is going to be here for us. I believe that in the middle of the maelstrom, in the tumult of the tempest, God is with us. God has the power to still the storm, but more importantly God has the love to open our hearts and calm our fears. God is still with us.

Most of us have heard about the horrific tragedy at the historic Emanuel AME church in Charleston, SC, this past Wednesday. I will not retell the details. Some of us are still in shock. For some of us it is too much to hear the particulars. I will simply say that a terrifying and evil act was committed in a holy house of God. Nine innocent lives were lost in the name of racism. Although we believe one individual man committed this horror and took these lives, we also know that the evil of racism is a horror that goes beyond any one person and has taken many lives. It is easy to ask the question at a time like this: Where is God? Abominable violence was committed under God’s own roof and what did God do? The people had gathered to hear the Word of God, including the person accused of the crime (and I say “accused” simply because that is the way our justice system works…innocent until proven guilty). This could have been one of those hopeful stories we hear about a conversion. Why didn’t the Word of God penetrate the hard heart of the young man who did this? Jesus calmed the storm in the Gospel story today. Surely the Holy Spirit could have calmed the young man and stopped him from carrying out his plan. Was the Spirit asleep, like Jesus in the back of the boat?

Creative Commons photo of Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC by jalexartis.
Creative Commons photo of Emanuel AME Church taken June 20, 2015 in Charleston, SC by jalexartis.

These are not new questions. We can ask them any time evil raises its head. If we pay attention, we could ask them every day, because the power of evil is alive in this world. It distorts our humanity and seeks to divide and destroy what is good. I use the word, “evil” intentionally. In our baptism we renounce evil and the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God. I believe it is those forces of evil that corrupted a young man’s view of his fellow human beings. I believe it is those forces that perpetuate a racist system in which our identity as children of God is twisted. Why does God seem to allow this? Where is God when again and again we are divided and held captive? Certainly God has the power to say to the storm: “silence, be still.”

I do not think we will ever get a satisfactory response to our questions about why God does not stop some evil. I say “some evil,” because I believe God is stopping evil all the time, and we just do not know about it. We can always hope for an ultimate end to evil as described in the prophets and visions of scripture. For now, we do not understand God’s ways of responding to the forces that rebel against God. What we might begin to understand, where we might find some hope, is in what we do believe about God. God is still with us.

Going back to the Gospel story about that boat in the storm: the disciples are shouting at Jesus, “Teacher do you not care that we are perishing?” Their shouting is born of fear, understandable fear for their lives. What they fail to see in the midst of their fear is that God is with them. Sure, they see Jesus, their teacher, sleeping in the stern, but they do recognize him as the son of God. They do not appreciate that God is right there, in the boat with them in the middle of the storm. He seems to be sleeping, but his lack of action does not mean he is absent. Jesus’ peaceful presence as the storm rages has a lesson to teach all its own.

God did not stop a man from committing violence in the Emanuel AME church on Wednesday evening. That does not mean, though, that God was not present or active. What then was God doing? I believe that God was loving. God was loving each of those people who died. God was loving the ones who were left alive. God was loving their families and all those who would be affected by this tragedy. God was even loving the person who did this (and we have to pray him too). Remember the words of Jesus on the cross about his own executioners: Forgive them, for they know not what they do. I believe that God was loving at Emanuel AME church last Wednesday, because I believe that Jesus was loving when he was on the cross. God in Christ endured the same kind of brutal and senseless death. Jesus calmed the storm in today’s Gospel lesson, but that power was only a warm up for the power he showed on the cross. Far from being passive, Jesus showed how love is stronger than hatred, more powerful than prejudice.

So I have to believe that in the middle of that storm inside the church, God was not far away or sleeping. God was right there, loving. I wish God had made a miracle happen and saved the physical lives of the nine victims. But God never promised us that our physical lives would be saved. Jesus never promised to still every storm that comes along. What God has promised us is to be with us in every storm. What God has promised us is to show us how to love no matter what, how to be free from fear, how to have eternal life. God is more concerned with our ability to love in this life and the next than with our physical safety. God is more concerned with our capacity to know peace in the middle of chaos than with removing the chaos from us. The spiritual forces of evil rebel against God, but God does not get drawn into the fight. It is not in God’s nature to struggle with evil; God is almighty. God is love, God showers love, mercy and grace upon a broken world, abundantly, relentlessly. We, on the other hand, struggle mightily against those rebellious forces. We need God’s grace and assistance as we renounce the evils of our world, including the evil of racism, and seek lasting peace and reconciliation in our time.

I said earlier that this place where we are gathered is sometimes called a sanctuary. The sanctuary specifically refers to the area around the altar where the bread and wine become the holy body and blood of Christ in communion. Sanctuary does not mean “safe;” it means “holy.” This larger room is properly called “the nave,” and that word comes from the same root as the word “naval,” pertaining to ships and the sea. Some churches are built so that the ceiling looks like the hull of a boat. This church is our holy vessel. This church is where we ride out the storms of life and occasionally witness a miracle of peace and calm. This church may even be a place where we may be called to confront evil face to face. This church is where we can have the courage to sail into troubled waters that cause division.

As our nation tries to see the way forward, there will be division and disagreement. But in this boat, we do not need to fear disagreement. We do not need to fear one another. Remember that the name of that AME church, “Emanuel,” is another word with a lot of meaning. Emanuel means “God is with us.” God is with us in this boat. God was at Emanuel AME last Wednesday. God is there as there as we pick up the pieces and struggle to find our way. God is with us in the storms, in the calm, in the face of evil and in the face of good. God is with us, loving us, tending to our hearts. God is with us, reminding us that Christ has suffered alongside us. We may want to shout, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” God’s response to us is “I am with you.” “Know my peace and give me your fear.” “Open your heart.” “There are no limits to my love.”

Surrendering to the Good Shepherd

From the Rev. Joe Hensley, rector, St. George’s Episcopal Church
Fredericksburg, VA | Fourth Sunday of Easter Year B, April 26, 2015

"Shepherd," by Reza Vaziri
“Shepherd,” by Reza Vaziri

“The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want.” There are few other words in scripture that are more comforting. I have said them at the bedside of sick and dying persons. I have said them at funerals. They bring that reassurance that ultimately, God is the only One who turns our scarcity into plenty. The Divine and Holy One is the only one who can reassure us in the shadow of death, feed us in the presence of our enemies, and bless us with abundant and steadfast love. The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want.

Shepherds have been around for nearly as long as humans have walked the earth. The relationship between shepherd and flock was sacred in ancient times. The shepherd cared for the animals which in turn provided labor and sustenance for the people. Survival depended on having good shepherds. To be a good shepherd took skills, sharp senses, and wisdom. Ancient peoples began using the term, shepherd, to describe their rulers. A good ruler like a good shepherd would care for the people. They would lead, protect, and provide.

We know, though, that not all shepherds are good. Not all monarchs are good. Jesus, in today’s Gospel describes himself as the Good Shepherd in contrast to the hired hand who runs away in the face of danger. What Jesus is saying, and what Psalm 23 is also saying, I think, is that there is really only one true and loving shepherd for humanity.

Sometimes, we have trouble believing that God is our shepherd. We can feel like God has left us defenseless. We worry that we won’t have enough. We fear that life is falling apart. Remember that the psalm which comes right before Psalm 23 is Psalm 22. Psalm 22 begins with the words, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?!” In Psalm 22, packs of wild animals surround the speaker. Enemies are on every side. The speaker cries out, wondering where God is: “Do not be far from me, for trouble is near and there is none to help.” When have we felt in trouble? When have we felt like no one had our back? For many of us, myself included, it is tempting in such times to turn away from God. We look for guidance and sustenance in the arms of inadequate shepherds, hired hands. The hired hand might do the job for a while, but runs away at the first sign of trouble. What “hired hand” do you turn to when you turn away from God? For some of us, we turn to money and the temporary security it offers. Some of us turn to unhealthy relationships or destructive behaviors. Some of us turn to overindulgence. Some of us turn to experts who tell us exactly what to do to find happiness. We fool ourselves by thinking that more knowledge will save us. None of these things give us the pastoral care that God provides. They help us deceive ourselves into thinking we can handle the situation on our own.

Truly, we can probably handle a lot of things on our own. There comes a point, though, where we say to ourselves, “I am ready to give up some control and stop trying so hard.” I’m ready to take my place among the sheep and stop pretending to be the shepherd. Some of us surrender to God easily. Some of us won’t give up until we hit rock bottom. Some of us surrender one day and put our defenses back up the next. I do not understand why we have trouble surrendering to God, why we have trouble believing “The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want.” What I do believe is that when we can give up, even temporarily, God cares for us much better than we can ever care for ourselves. Following God, we are much more free than we are following our own guidance.

So how do we surrender? How do we convince our hearts to believe that “The Lord is my shepherd?” We could spend several sermons on these questions. Certainly part of surrender is found in obeying the command to love one another that we heard in the letter of John today. Another part of surrender is definitely listening in quiet prayer for the voice of the shepherd that Jesus mentioned. I want to focus on something a little more uncomfortable, perhaps. It involves the collection plate. In the Episcopal Church, we tend to start with the material and move to the spiritual. We start with the wet water of baptism. The edible bread and wine of holy communion. We touch, taste, hear, smell, and see things in the act of worship. At first we may not have much understanding of what is going on before us, but with time and practice, we develop a sense of the Spirit at work. Every Sunday we put out an empty plate or pass it around. We don’t say much about it, but many of us put money in that plate or send a check to the church. Yes, that money does sustain the ministry of the church and helps others in need, but that is only a part of the purpose of the empty plate. Yes, we offer our gifts in thanksgiving to the one who gives us everything. But thanksgiving, too, is not the whole picture. We offer each other this empty plate as an invitation to surrender. Sacrifice some money as a material gesture of our desire to trust in God. The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want. Money is not my shepherd. The things money can buy are not my shepherd. My true needs are not supplied by money. So I put some money in the plate. At first we may not be sure what this material gesture means. Over time, with practice, for many of us giving away money to God has become a sign that we want to be free. We want to stop following the hired hands who would feed us to the wolves. We want to be free to give, free to love, free to trust that God really is our shepherd.

I know there are lots of invitations to give money in the church. Since I got here in January, we have invited you to give to the operating budget, to Shrine Mont’s Shout to the Mountain campaign, to outreach, flowers, and trust funds for Easter, to United Thank Offering, and the Community Give effort for The Table. It may sound like a lot. Let me emphasize that this is not a test. You will notice that the plate does not sound an alarm if you give nothing. Nor does a choir of angels sing if you put in a million dollars. Your gift does not necessarily indicate great faith. The open plate simply extends an invitation to surrender who we are and what we have to God so that we can stop following false shepherds. Money is just one thing that goes in the plate. We can surrender our time to God. We can give energy and effort to God. We can offer whatever it is that we value instead of God. Money is often helpful, because it’s very tangible and we give it a lot of power in our minds.

Yes, money does help us keep the lights on and the bills paid. It helps us feed the hungry and be available to care for others. But the church too surrenders to God. We give away a lot for free and proclaim that God’s grace is without charge and plentiful. Over and over God shows us that we can do more than we ever thought possible. So again, this is not a test. The plate is not a fundraising tool. It is not a veiled attempt to get you to give more. The plate openly proclaims that when we surrender to God and Christ the Good Shepherd, God shows us our true life and revives our souls. The Lord is our shepherd, we shall not want. You, O God, spread a table before us, you have anointed us to follow you and announce your abundant love to the world. You will pursue us to the ends of the earth with goodness and loving kindness all the days of our life. May we surrender to you, O great, holy, and mysterious One and dwell in your house, our true home.

Peace be with you

From the Rev. Joe Hensley, rector, St. George’s Episcopal Church
Fredericksburg, VA | Third Sunday of Easter Year B, April 19, 2015

handshakePeace be with you. These are the risen Jesus’ first words to his disciples as he appears to them late on that Easter Day. These are the words we share with one another each week in our worship service before we share the Holy Eucharist together. These words are really a resurrection greeting. They are an invitation to wholeness, fulfillment, and new life. Peace be with you.

So often when we think of peace, we think of the absence of conflict. We think of peacefulness, serenity, calm. So when we say, “The Peace of the Lord be always with you,” we might be thinking: “Jesus was such a peaceful person…may you also be peaceful like Jesus.” When we share the peace, though, we are sharing so much more than just a feeling of calm. The word that Jesus and the Hebrews used for peace, “Shalom,” carries with it a sense of being whole and complete. Peace means the fulfillment of all that God has called us to be. We are not merely without conflict. We are at peace, because all the pieces are in place. We are no longer at war with ourselves and each other, because we have all we need.

It was customary in Jesus’ time to greet someone with the words, “Peace be with you.” The words did not necessarily carry a lot of symbolism. It could have been that Jesus was just greeting his disciples in the customary way. But I choose to believe that he also really meant what he said. He really wanted them to know true fulfillment. Jesus wants us to know true fulfillment also, wholeness and completeness that can endure suffering and even death and still live and breathe, touch and taste, just like the risen Christ.

I am reminded of an old story which takes place hundreds if not thousands of years ago. In these ancient times, if you were traveling alone, you had to be on your guard. Deserted trails and roads were rarely protected. If you met someone along the way, they might be a bandit or a thief. One day, a man was traveling in a wild and lonesome place where the path was quite narrow because of the rocks on either side. He sees another man coming along the path towards him. He does not recognize the man as anyone he knows he can trust. He will not be able to step aside to let the other man pass. So they meet, unable to easily pass one another in this narrow spot, and are looking at each other, trying to decide what to do. Then the first man does something completely unexpected and unconventional. He extends his empty right hand to the other man. Now to extend your empty dominant hand, the hand you would normally use to pull out your sword or knife…to put that hand, empty, out in front of you…was a risky thing to do. It meant being vulnerable. The second man was so taken aback by this gesture that he wasn’t sure how to respond at first. He had never seen anyone do this. Was it some kind of trick? He looks the first man in the eye and thinks maybe he will try it too. He extends his empty right hand. The two hands get closer and closer until they touch and the two men squeeze hands. It was the very first handshake.

Of course, we don’t know for certain when or where the first handshake occurred. But somewhere, sometime, there must have been someone who was willing to take that risk to extend the empty hand as a gesture of peace. The open hand was a sign that you could trust.

The risen Jesus extends his empty and wounded hands to his disciples with the words “Peace be with you.” His resurrected body is a sign to us that God is ready to make peace with us. Jesus is God’s handshake to us. God wants us to trust and believe in the gifts of repentance and forgiveness. God is ready to help us change our lives and release us from all our spiritual debts. Even though we continue to put our hands on our swords. Even though we continue to look with suspicion at the good things of this world. Even though we doubt that we are loveable or that we can love…God extends the vulnerable, empty hand of the Easter Jesus to us and says “Peace be with you.”

Our Easter gift to ourselves and one another is to put aside our fears and reach out that empty hand to God and to a neighbor. There will be moments when we encounter another, and we will be tempted to reach for our defenses. What are our defenses? What words, thoughts, actions do we use to protect ourselves from others? What is our go to response when we meet a stranger along the way? The stranger in ourselves, the stranger on the street, the stranger who may be Christ in disguise? I admit, I am an idealist, but I also know that sometimes we have to defend ourselves. The world can truly be a dangerous place. The murder of a University of Mary Washington student this past week is a horrible reminder. Today is the twentieth anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing. This week, our Diocese has called upon us to remember the 100th anniversary of the genocide of Armenians in what is now Turkey. Over 1 million Armenians were systematically killed by the Ottoman Empire. But even in a world where such awful things can and do occur, the risen Christ comes and says “peace is possible.” The resurrection witness of Christ is to suggest that we can have the grace to open our hand, open our heart, take a risk to know another, to know ourselves, to know God and God’s peace.

It is no accident that many of us pray with open hands. The Roman Catholic priest, Henri Nouwen, once wrote a book about prayer with that very title. He talks about opening the hand that we often form into a fist. When our hands are tightly clenched around the things we cling to, we cannot be whole. We cannot know peace. We know the peace of God when we come with those open hands, ready to accept the gift only God can give.

Peace be with you, my brothers and sisters. May the peace of Christ, the wounded and vulnerable Christ, be with you. May his shalom, his wholeness and completeness show us where we are clinging too tightly, holding on to our defenses, where we are unwilling to open ourselves. May the peace of the risen Christ help us know that peace which we can share with the world, an open-handed, open-hearted, repenting and forgiving peace that passes all understanding. Alleluia.