Let us pray.  All of our fears like Jericho walls gotta come down, come down, Oh Lord: rebuild us from the ground up.  All of our fears like Jericho walls gotta come down.  Our prisons turn to ruin when your love moves in.  All our fears like Jericho walls gotta come down, come down, come down.  (based on the song Jericho Walls by Andrew Ripp)

That the scripture appointed for our Annual Meeting 2021 is set on a wilderness road sounds about right—this year it’s familiar territory for most of us.  But Philip and the man he encounters in the book of Acts are on their way home… they get through.  And so will we.

He is not given a name, but he was the secretary of the treasury for Candace, Queen of Ethiopia, and he had been to Jerusalem on a religious pilgrimage.  If he is like other eunuchs of the near and far east, he was castrated against his will, just prior to puberty, in order to serve the queen in her innermost circle.  His home is called Africa in some translations, which suggests that he was brought to the queen’s court in Ethiopia from an even more foreign place, and the ritual sexual mutilation he undergoes is to insure his loyalty to her.  Literally and figuratively, he is cut off from his country, his family, the children he will never father, and even from God.  Because religions at the time were quite focused on fertility, and squeamish about any body that wasn’t perfectly formed, a eunuch was considered damaged goods and often shunned.

Because he has been to Jerusalem and is reading Isaiah, the eunuch is probably what was called a “God-fearer,” invited to stand in the narthex, but behind a screen, welcome to listen to the services, but excluded from the ritual life of the Temple, and so, the social life of its people.  He is a curious outsider that “proper folks” are trained not to see or hear or engage with in any way, as they push past him to get to where they are going.  He is the other that societies tolerate when their members are feeling safe, perhaps, or the stranger that we turn on when the world feels chaotic and when we are looking for someone to blame.

So he is a test, if you will, of anyone who says that he follows Jesus (the one who is the embodiment of love that heals every human separation).  What I mean is, if we say that we believe in the one who has broken down walls that exclude… if we say that we are followers of the one who has confronted systems which privilege a few and diminish so many others, then this story asks “How will you be a part of that movement?” Now that we have a taste of being healed ourselves, the text wonders, how will we be healers ourselves?  Let’s look at Philip:

The eunuch is riding is a chariot, going over the scripture out loud, when Philip happened to overhear him and asked if he understood what the words were all about.  The eunuch said he could use some help on one passage in particular:

“Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter, and like a lamb silent before his shearer, so he does not open his mouth.  In his humiliation justice was denied him.  Who can describe his generation?  For his life is taken away from the earth.”  Who is the prophet writing about, the eunuch asks?  Is he describing his own situation or someone else’s calamity?

The eunuch doesn’t have to say who he is.  There is no mistaking the trappings of a royal servant—able to read, sumptuously dressed, but still bound inside his golden cage.  His high voice, softened features, and access to the queen communicate without words that he is a person on a threshold, neither fully in nor totally cast out, kept in his place if you will, relegated to the suspicious margins of that culture.  No wonder he is drawn to the prophet’s words about a lamb without a voice who is cut off from his generations, humiliated by sacrifice, and denied justice.  No wonder he wants to know who the prophet is writing about.  I imagine he also wonders if the prophet could care for a person like him who has been warped by the system?  Is there room in the family for his kind of wound?

Philip gets it, and the miracle is that he sees the eunuch, and stops to hear him, gets in the eunuch’s chariot and sits beside him the way peers do or friends do, and shares the story of his life and his conversion.  “Isaiah is writing about a Suffering Servant,” Philip might have told the man, “a glimpse of the holy one who is broken and vulnerable like we are, and who shows us that God is present with us even in our poverty and our agony, and that the wounded one that we are likely to reject is the very child of God.  And I have met this child of God,” Philip’s actions say, “the son of Mary and Joseph, and he has seen God in me—in all of us—and when I follow in this way, of embracing the God in you and the God in me, the God who makes dust of every wall of separation we build, then salvation comes.  Living this way repairs the world, and it heals me in the bargain.”  So no wonder Philip’s companion wants to be baptized, to put down an old way of being and put on a whole new mind.

And then even more social and religious lines are crossed.  In those days converts would be baptized naked, so the royal figure must have taken off all of his finery and the symbols of his office, exposing his physical mutilation in the process, not to mention his black skin and, following, Philip’s brown skin, and apparently both he and Philip are fine with that.  They go down into the water together, stripped and vulnerable and wet with living water, both being born again through this action w.  And that intimate, embodied conversation is the gift of this story, and an image for each of us to carry.  This is the call of any who would follow Jesus, it says—unlikely partners brought together, willing to open up to each other, both healing, able to see God in themselves and in each other, across seemingly unbridgeable divides of race and class and sexuality and country of origin (maybe even political party!), through the work of mutual respect fostered by taking the time to listen deeply.  That’s what goes on in this story: they listen deeply to each other.  They share their stories with each other.  There’s no shortcut to knowing each other.  That’s how we’re healed.  That’s how systems are changed.  That’s how the world is repaired.

Karyn Wiseman tells this story: About 10 years ago, my son and I were at a local park playing on the swings when a group of boys started taunting a small child with a disfigured arm about 50 yards away from us.  They were calling her ugly names and throwing small rocks and sticks in her direction.  We had seen this little girl playing happily, running around, and laughing with delight.  And now she was terrified.

I heard the taunts and began moving in that direction to intercede, but my son outran me.  Only six-years-old at the time, he yelled at the boys, “Leave her alone.  She’s just like us.”  The boys saw and heard my son and likely saw the adult close on his heals.  They abandoned their harassment and ran away.

The young girl, Mandy, was crying and scared.  I wanted to thrash the boys for scaring and taunting her, but my son knew better.  He knew that what Mandy needed was (some company)… He touched her disfigured arm and said, “You want to come play?”  And off they ran, holding hands and giggling wildly.

The young girl’s mother showed up after the episode occurred and I relayed the story to her.  She lowered her head and said, “This happens (all the time).  How do I protect my child from people who fear her differences?” (Sojourner’s magazine)

I’m not sure I have an easy answer for that mother and her pain, but it occurs to me that the boy and the two men in the scripture this morning are doing the same thing.  They stopped and listened and saw the other person as someone worth their time, even though the rules of the playground would say to shun her or ignore him.

There is always the possibility that we will circle the wagons and cut ourselves off from whomever is beyond some imagined line or accustomed wall.  There will always be an “other” if we let ourselves think that way.

Or we can go down into the water together, stripped of categories and pretense, open to possibility, sure of this good news: in Christ we are one great fellowship of love… no longer slave or free, Jew or Greek, male or female.  In Christ there is no east or west, in him no south or north—I’m talking to you Baltimore… no longer strangers or enemies, but brothers and sisters, partners and friends.  One family, one city, one world under God.  Whatever the wilderness, however rough the road, if we are together, we are on our way home.

Love,
David

Today, Thursday, April 29, is the feast of St. Catherine of Sienna. If you’ve never encountered St. Catherine before, she was a Spanish 14th century mystic. As a child, Catherine had a vision of Jesus, “seated in glory” with saints Peter, Paul, and John. Jesus smiled and blessed her, and from then on she spent most of her time in prayer. Her parents tried to encourage more age, gender, and class appropriate pursuits for a little girl from a wealthy family, but Catherine was determined. She cut off all her hair and stood firm until finally she was allowed to sequester herself in a dark room where she fasted and slept on boards. (From this description, I can kind of see why her parents were reluctant…)

As she grew, Catherine had many visions, some of which were difficult. At times, she felt abandoned by God. Eventually, after years of torment, she experienced a “mystical marriage” to Christ and promptly became a nurse (she had also become a Dominican sister; nursing was a common vocation among their order), caring especially for people with cancer and leprosy, two groups that other nurses did not like to treat.

Catherine continued to work as a nurse during a time of plague in her community; she visited prisoners sentenced to death; and she arbitrated feuds, including feuds within the church. Catherine is also remembered for her work during a papal schism to restore unity in the church, writing hundreds of letters to politically and religiously powerful men seeking peace.

From accounts of her life and work, it seems that Catherine was a woman filled with passion and love of God. That passion took her to all kinds of extremes, from her childhood asceticism to her care for the sickest and most reviled in society. And extremes tend to shock the status quo: As her career grew in publicity, Siena was divided about whether Catherine was indeed a saint, or if she was simply a religious fanatic. The well timed support of an influential bishop helped her win public favor and opinion.

I am reflecting especially on St. Catherine today, because of a quote attributed to her:

“To the servant of God every place is the right place, and every time is the right time.”

Every place is the right place and every time is the right time to spread the love of Christ, to God’s work of justice and mercy, to offer ourselves as co-workers of the Spirit in the world. It was true for Catherine in the 1300s; it is true for us today. And there are matters pressing us as deeply as they pressed her, calling out for love, justice, mercy, and the movement of the Spirit, all motivated by a passionate love of God and one another.

Last night I presented at an alumni panel for the Episcopal Service Corps (ESC), in a Zoom room with at least 40 other people who have dedicated themselves to the work of love, justice, and mercy. ESC is an organization that invites young adults (21-30) to spend a year living in an intentional community while working at a social justice non-profit and developing their spirituality as individuals and as a community. When I was a corps member, one of the things I learned (and am continually learning, every day) was that the work of love, justice and mercy must, for me, be rooted in a connection to God and God’s love. When it wasn’t, burn out would ensue.

When the work centered only on the changes that I could perceive; only the basis of public opinion in a community; only on how results matched strategic goals, then when I encountered failure, recalcitrance, and broken systems (which was frequently!), I felt defeated. When the work was about my performance — how able I was to cure a plague or repair a schism in the church, for example  — then I became stuck in a mire of pride and self defeat. The cultivation of human relationships, of growing in my own relationship with God, of the gift of living out God’s call, disappeared and instead an idol appeared. No longer was it the right place and right time to spread God’s love — it was a place where I had failed to achieve my own goals.

Channeling our inner St. Catherine — to serve God in every place and every time, and allow a love of God to be our motivation and guide — does not mean less dedication to a cause. If you have read the news this week you know that death and sin continue to stalk within us and in our communities. But if we work from a place that puts God at the center, then we have fuel to carry us on our way. We cannot heal our brokenness — only God can — but we can be co-workers with the Spirit to bring out that healing.

Love,
Rebecca

Dear Folks,

What do we say to our children of every race about the death of George Floyd and the conviction of Derek Chauvin?  I am helped by the words of Michael Molina, Head of The Bishop Walker School for Boys in Washington DC.  The school was founded in 2006 “to alter the educational and social trajectory of children from traditionally underserved communities and prepare them for service in their communities and well beyond,” and Molina began his tenure there last summer. You’ll be interested to know that Molina moved there from Baltimore, where for 14 years he was a Gilman teacher, coach, and administrator, not to mention a spoken word poet!

Today, we parents and educators may feel a weight lifted, and a rush of relief. With the conviction of Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd, we know that justice can happen here and now. Yet, that relief must be tempered by the reality of what it took to get justice in this one case – a graphic and horrific video of police violence out in the open, sustained protests across the country & world, and officers breaking ranks to testify against one of their own. We have to ask if justice could have come without this massive alignment of forces. 

The verdict, while a reason for hope, does not erase the fact that we who are educators and parents will always be faced with the enormous challenge of how to explain the horrors of the world to our students and our own children. We must lead and guide our young people, even as we love and comfort them to explain the challenging world around us… 

We must help our young people feel empowered. We can do that by sharing the good news.  A 17-year-old girl, Darnella Frazier, had the awareness and courage to record the video that made the possibility of justice for George Floyd. That video sparked a multi-racial, multi-generational mass movement out into the streets the likes of which have not been seen since the civil rights movement of the 1950’s and 60’s…

We must also prepare our young people for the world they are growing into. To do that, we must also face hard truths. In the midst of the Derek Chauvin trial and verdict, there have been several police related shootings resulting in deaths, two of which involved children under the age of 18. There has also been a disturbing increase in young people perpetrating violence that has resulted in death and fear…

As we face the good and the difficult in the world, I pray that we keep some consistent messages resonating throughout our households, classrooms, and communities…

We will do everything we can to keep you safe because we love you and believe in you.  Here, with us, you will be seen, known, and appreciated for who you are.  No outside force of negativity can ever touch the good that God made in you.  The Justice System has always been imperfect in America, but it gives us the opportunity to speak up for ourselves. We will always speak up for ourselves and demand our right to do so.

Thank you, Michael Molina, for your compassionate, courageous leadership.  May we embody your wisdom in our own lives.

Love,
David

I am simply enamored with the words of Our beloved sister, Cristina+, at the close of some of her messages.  As a matter of fact, I like her “take good care,” a lot.  I think it has to do with the fact that I have an overachieving, Type A personality, that is given to intensity and extremes (and I am sure I am not alone in this).  So, hearing or reading those words remind me to give myself permission…to just BREATHE, BE, and enjoy LIFE.

Given this past week’s drama in the judicial system and the ongoing assault upon black and brown bodies by law enforcement, I must say that taking care of myself has become more of a necessity than it has ever been before.  Frankly, it has always been hard to look like I do and live in this country and yet, it often feels as if the systems of our nation are regressing into an even more unjust and death-dealing state totally antithetical to human flourishing for all humans.  I grieve and even mourn this state of affairs.

Because of this, it has become imperative to pay attention to whether I am really taking good care of myself.  I am determined to not only take care of my physical, emotional, and mental condition with more intention, I must also care for my energetic state…my energy as it were, because yes, energy is a real thing.

What about you?  You may be taking care of your body…but what about your mind?  Are you filling it with things that lift your spirit and give you great joy and/ or peace?  If not, you may not be taking good care of yourself.  Are you taking care of your spirit, by offering forgiveness so that you can give and receive love in every aspect of your life?  If not, you may not be taking good care.  Are you taking care of your energetic self and letting go of relationships, places, people, and even food that do not contribute to a sense of well-being and “rightness” in your life?  If not, you are probably not taking good care.

I do not know about you, but I ask myself these questions and realize that I have come up wanting.  Frankly, I have not been taking good care, so starting today I intend to make a change.  That means that I probably will not be on social media much.  Such is the cost to regain a sense of a good GOD working in our lives as a community, a nation, and a world.  I need to be reminded that this battle many of us fight for the right to live without verbal or physical assault is GOD’s own battle for GOD’s kingdom to expand upon the earth; and that we have come this far by faith.  I am looking at my life and realizing that I have changes I need to make.  I am going to change my tune.  Like CP+ says, we all must learn to “take good care.”

Faithfully,
Freda Marie+

We have a lot to learn from Monarch butterflies.

Take for instance their “internal guidance system” that keeps them going upwards of 3,000 miles, from their summer breeding grounds in northeastern U.S. and Canada all the way to their “winter homes” in southwestern Mexico.

Or the fact they accomplish what they need to accomplish over a span of generations …

Yesterday after our noonday Eucharist, I learned from a parishioner, who breeds monarch butterflies on her property in Maine, that the monarch butterflies who will return to her in Maine next summer are not the same ones who will leave her this summer. As she explained (and I later read in a National Geographic article https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/article/monarch-butterfly-migration to learn more, because I found it all so fascinating!), it takes the collective work of 3 to 4 generations of monarch butterflies – “passing the baton” from one generation to the next, if you will – for their species to return from whence they came and keep their magnificent kind going.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this, especially in light of the times we find ourselves living in, and the collective work before us. Yesterday in the late afternoon, I met with the Sacred Ground group I’ve been co-facilitating, as we continue journeying alongside one another, learning the fuller truth of our country’s history and how we’ve arrived to where we are today, and holding space for difficult but respectful and transformative dialogue on race and racism. A common refrain from members of my group and other groups is “How is it possible that we never learned any of this?” or “I just didn’t know.”

Yesterday, one of our group’s participants voiced how the more we learn, the more overwhelming it all feels and seems: this work of healing and transforming our nation when it comes to race and racism.

And it made me think of monarch butterflies.

We cannot and will not accomplish this work in our one generation.

But … AND … we have our part to play, our leg of the journey to complete.

Each of us has something s/he can do.

Are you in, for our leg of the journey?

Will you fly, together with me?

~Cristina

I can’t think of any place I’d rather be.  Can you?

Easter doesn’t lend itself to pageant tableaux the way Christmas does, with its colorful cast of characters: Mary, Joseph, the baby, three wise men… the innkeeper, the shepherds, the sheep and a giggling host of angels.  No wonder we put our children in bathrobes, smudge their faces with charcoal or glitter and put on a show.  We have made a major production of the nativity, and then added flourishes of our own creation: cards, carols, garlands, and the Grinch.

But Easter is entirely different.  It starts in the dark, in a graveyard, with the stone rolled back from a donated tomb.  Three women—Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome—sidle in at dawn on Sunday to anoint their teacher’s body for burial, too rushed on Friday by the coming Sabbath to complete their necessary ablutions.  There is an earthquake in one account, quiet in some, shouting in others, confusion all around, and fear… always fear.

But it is not a major production at all, “and the minor attractions we have created around it—the bunnies and baskets and bonnets and eggs—have so little to do with (the action), that they neither add nor subtract very much. …  It’s not really even much of a story when you come right down to it,” writes Frederick Buechner, “and that is of course the power of it.  It doesn’t have the ring of great drama,” he adds.  “It has the ring of truth.”

And so here we are this morning, sidling in as well, many of us weary from visiting hospitals or graves ourselves, worried about politics and the pandemic, wondering about work—too much to bear, the missed opportunities, or both, tending by habit at home to relationships or systems that wound, and hoping against hope that there is Light and Life and Love at the end of the tunnel.

…Long before this winter’s snow
I dreamt of this day’s sunny glow
And thought somehow my pain would pass
With winter’s pain, and peace like grass
Would simply grow.  (But) The pain’s not gone.
It’s still as cold and hard and long
As lonely pain has ever been,
It cuts so deep and fear within.

Long before this winter’s snow
I ran from pain, looked high and low
For some fast way to get around
Its hurt and cold.  I’d have found,
If I had looked at what was there,
That things don’t follow fast or fair.
That life goes on, and times do change,
And grass does grow despite life’s pains.

Long before this winter’s snow
I thought that this day’s sunny glow,
The smiling children and growing things
And flowers bright were brought by spring.
Now, I know the sun does shine,
That children smile, and (it’s) from the dark, cold, grime
(That) A flower comes.  It groans, yet sings,
And through its pain, its peace begins.  (Mary Ann Bernard, Resurrection)

Resurrection comes.  When a person sees himself clearly, perhaps for the first time in his life, and he moves away from behavior that hurts others and himself, that is resurrection.  When a couple, long married, realizes that decades of small betrayals and half-truths have transformed their once rich relationship into something dead and dry, and instead of giving up, they let something new and more honest be born, that is resurrection.  When an artist dejectedly faces an empty page or a pot of paint, but then allows a spark to take her imagination into some new way of seeing or shaping reality, that is resurrection.  And when a scientist goes to sleep with a similarly blank page and wakes to a new equation or insight into the life of a cell or the universe, that is resurrection.

Resurrection comes… not always when we pray for it or desire it… not always as we ask for it or expect it… not always how we think it should appear.  But it comes.  Wherever we are, God is always running toward us.

Some would have us cynical and disappointed most of the time, angry that in the midst of life, there is death.  But Jesus tells another story.  He says: in defeat and disappointment, even in dying, there is more life.  Not necessarily more days, not necessarily easy solutions, not necessarily power or credit or cure, but always more life.

When Mary Magdalene and the other women stole through the streets at daybreak on the way to the tomb, all they expected was death.  They planned to wash Jesus’s body, which had been hastily dragged from the cross before sundown, and they brought oils and spices for their work.

Mary Magdalene had been somebody when Jesus was around.  She was no longer called a sinner or made the subject of people’s gossip.  The others began to look her in the eye, instead of down their noses at her.  The teacher Jesus saw in Mary her essential self, and that helped her feel strong and whole.  But this morning Mary was like a corpse, on her way to take care of somebody else who was dead, sure of nothing now, except that she had lost everything, again.

Then “as they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. But he said to them, ‘Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.’”

Then Mary left with her friends, and later she ran right into the arms of the living God, but no one believed her.  How could someone like Mary Magdalene have such good news to tell, the leaders—the disciples—grumbled narrowly, true to form.  Even on Easter Sunday, they sink to judgment and selfishness, probably out of fear, and we know something about that, too.  But Mary is the point—this condemned and excluded one who runs to God, because she realizes that God has been running to find her, all this time.  And that is resurrection.

Twenty-five years ago, Kelly Clem pulled up to the front of the church she served as pastor, Goshen United Methodist Church, in Piedmont, Alabama.  She and her two daughters, Hannah and Sarah, climbed out of the car and went into the church to begin a rehearsal for the Palm Sunday Passion play.

In the middle of their rehearsal, a powerful storm erupted and a tornado hit the church head on.  In a matter of seconds, the church was turned to rubble.  In the eerie silence that followed, Kelly realized that the roof of the church had caved in on everybody there.  Hannah, four-years-old, who only minutes before had been standing a few feet away from her mother was now nowhere to be seen.  Frantic, Kelly began digging through the debris, and found Hannah’s foot protruding at an odd angle, and cold.  They got the little girl out and a rescue worker took her away.  Kelly’s husband Dale left work and met their daughter at the hospital.

Minutes later, Kelly turned to find Sarah, who was shaken but O.K., escaping with only minor scratches.  The next hour or so passed in a blur of looking for others, until Dale got through to Kelly: Hannah didn’t make it, he said.  That night 20 people died in the church and 86 more were seriously wounded.  And this all happened leading up to Palm Sunday.  Most of Holy Week was filled with funerals of friends and family, including Hannah’s, gathering at borrowed churches across town.  Kelly later said that as she lay in bed that week, bone tired and emotionally numb, she was sure that Goshen Church was gone.  It must have been buried with the rest of them.

But as Saturday approached, the phone began to ring.  Would there be an Easter service at Goshen Church, people asked.  Should we gather?  Could we?  Kelly seized some energy from somewhere and said, “Yes.  We’ll have a sunrise service at Goshen Church, in the midst of the broken mess,” she told them.  “We’ll be there on Sunday, waiting for Easter.”

That morning at dawn, Kelly assembled in darkness with 200 people beside what was left of the building.  In the center of the property, where the altar would have been, someone took two ceiling joists and nailed together a cross.  At around 7:00, the sun spilled over the horizon in colors of purple and pink, which her sister noted were Hannah’s favorite.

With her face swollen, her heart broken, and her shoulder in a brace, Kelly looked out at all the faces there and said, “I can’t think of any place I’d rather be.  Can you?”  Then she opened the Bible and began to read: “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?  Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?  No, in all these things we are made more than conquerors through him who loved us.  For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all of creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”  And that was sermon enough.

I can’t explain the resurrection, but I am a witness to it. Look at Mary Magdalene. Look at that momma in Piedmont, Alabama. Look at your family in recovery. Look at the scientists who willed a vaccine into existence in months.  Look at the folks waking up to their racism and turning from their death-dealing ways. Look at the legislation that cuts child poverty in half.

Look at a church that says all people are worthy whatever your color, wherever you live, whoever you fall in love with, and however much you have or don’t have.  Look: the tomb is empty, he is risen.  Look: the Word has become flesh again and moved into your neighborhood, from Galilee to Gaithersburg, and every town in between. And in your precious heart God has found herself a home.  Right smack in the middle of our lives, where we know we are tired and we feared we were done, our strengthening voices have found their Easter song: Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!

Love,
David