Unorthodox and Unhinged

Tales of a Manic Christian


Jesus wept.

Listen here.

A Homily for the Fifth Sunday in Lent

March 29, 2020

One of my favorite books is Gospel.  No, not the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke or John but a big, rambling 800-page novel by Wilton Barnhardt.  Gospel is the story of an eccentric hardboiled Chicago Irish professor and his nubile graduate student assistant, as they travel the world: Europe, Africa, the Middle East, the Americas, in search of a fifth gospel, a lost gospel.

This lost gospel turns out to be the testament of Matthias. Matthias is the thirteenth apostle. Remember, the one who was chosen by a roll of the dice in the book of Acts.  Judas’ replacement. Matthias, you see, was not in that Upper Room with the other disciples when Jesus mysteriously appeared. Having not been on the resurrection scene, Matthias can barely wrap his head around what resurrection means.  He struggles daily with unbelief.  Matthias’ fictional gospel recounts his quest, the story of an old man, who seeks to find his fellow remaining disciples in their autumn years. 

Do they still believe? Do they still have faith in that wild, incredulous story? Do they still believe, after all this time, that life can come out of death?  

There are rumors, Matthias in the novel tells us. Persistent rumors that the body of their Lord had actually been stolen, and secreted away. The rumors haunt Matthias. He urgently wants to dispel them. So, he searches out the shady underground that traffics in relics.

Matthias pays the underworld guide a bag of silver, to be taken to what is claimed to be — Jesus’ hideaway tomb. The guide “brought me to the door of the chamber,” he says, “where the relic of Our Lord was supposed to be hidden.  But here, brothers and sisters, you shall find it strange, but I refused to go forward. The guide beckoned me to follow but I stood frozen in my path!  He approached what looked like the remains of a body and began to unwrap the dirty linen, but I demanded that he stop, and I fled up the stairs. I ran from the very truth I sought.”

Resurrection faith is hard to hold onto. It is hard to maintain. Like this doubting Matthias, can we really believe that life can come from death? That grief might be redeemed by joy?

Graveyards are haunting and holy places. They speak of sacrifice and loss, grief and sorrow. But also, gratitude, a rush of love for those who have gone before us.  A place of peace and rest. Memorials to hope.

We are in a grieving time, a very anxious time.   Social distancing is paramount. It is what we are called to do. It is our critical ministry of love to carry out for one another. Our ministry of love for our community and country. Our ministry of love to do what we can to contain the spread of the corona virus.

But Covid-19, at least for the time being, has been the death of our daily routines. We grieve the loss of being in church together, the loss of coffee with a friend, the loss of play dates, the loss of after school sports and sitting in the bleachers at baseball games. We grieve the loss of going to the office, happy hour after work with friends. We grieve the loss of touch and human warmth.

We grieve the cost to those most vulnerable: to those with no sick leave or insurance, to the Uber and Lyft drivers, to service and gig-workers, to the hungry and the homeless, to the immigrants, refugees, and the undocumented, to families with no childcare, and children without classrooms and without school meals.

We grieve the loss of lives already taken by the virus and for those who have lost a loved one when they cannot be by their side.

How do we stay connected to one another and to those who need us, in this upside down Covid-19 world?

Well, Jesus has something to tell us today.

Let’s listen to the story of Jesus today in the Gospel of John. The story of   Jesus creating life out of death: the raising of Lazarus. Now, I have always had trouble with the Jesus, John portrays in this story.  Jesus comes across a little aloof, a little cold and indifferent to the death of his friend. Waiting to employ his miraculous powers for maximum affect. To instill rock solid belief in doubting believers. It’s very likely the people of John’s community, late in the first century, two generations after Jesus, had trouble holding on to their resurrection faith. So, the evangelist John, and John alone, tells the story of the raising of Lazarus.

Now certain scholars believe that John simply made this story up. Made it up out of bits and pieces from the other gospels.

This cocky and confident Christ sounds more like the preaching of John than the Jesus I know and love. But read it again. The story’s core rings true. It is in the end, a story of a grieving friend whose faith was put to the test.

Hearing of his friend’s illness, a very busy Jesus, over scheduled, overburdened and preoccupied with his mission, is not overly concerned for Lazarus. Jesus believes he has the benefit of time but Jesus was wrong.

Dumbfounded and unbelieving, Jesus returns to Bethany. As he approaches the grave of his friend, he breaks down and cries. 

 Jesus wept.

Overwhelmed by grief, I imagine Jesus berating himself with Mary and Martha’s questions: O my God, Lazarus, why was I not here to comfort you?  Why did I not come sooner?  Maybe I could have made a miracle.  Maybe I could have healed you.

In tears, Jesus cries out. Father!  Hear me! Please, bring Lazarus back. Come out Lazarus. Come out.

And this is probably heresy, but I believe that when Lazarus stumbled out of the tomb that day, that no one was more surprised than Jesus. Just in time, before Jesus heads into Jerusalem, just before he climbs the hill at Calvary, Jesus felt and saw, that yes, God can and God does and God will call life out of death. God will roll away that stone.

And so, for us, just as well, we get a glimpse of Easter before Easter. A foretaste of hope, of life restored. Resurrected, yes but not the same. Some the same, but also different.

So, the things we grieve the loss of, the loss of so many daily connections, inspires us to find new creative ways to stay connected as the Body of Christ. And we are just beginning to figure this out as a community of faith.

What does pastoral care look like? Keeping it as personal as possible with phone calls, handwritten notes in the mail, and FaceTime. A “zoom” visit into your living room. “Zoom” visits to a bedside or a hospital room. Even from a distance, we can “lay on hands” of love. Don’t hesitate to reach out to Chuck or I, the contact info is in your “electronic bulletin.”

And if we weren’t before, we are all pastors now, pastors to one another. Your voice, your face on the other end of the line, your handwritten note can bring untold comfort and brighten someone’s day.

And spiritual formation? Well, we are all wrestling with angels now. In times like these, we look to our faith for strength and solace. So for families with children, “EEC Sunday school at Home” materials are included here, in your electronic bulletin. And for grownups? Consider “zooming” bible study, a book group, a “virtual Popcorn Theology. Maybe “zooming” God and Donuts gatherings, too? And if you would like to have a one-on-one conversation we can do “Rabbi by Appointment” via Zoom. Email me and I would be more than happy to set that up.

What does Outreach look like? This is both the most challenging and incredibly important. The financial repercussions of Covid-19 are enormous. Untold numbers of Americans (possibly even yourself) have been furloughed and have lost their jobs. On this front, the Outreach Ministry Team is coordinating with its many direct service ministries: bag lunches; shelter meals, etc. And online you can donate to Emmanuel’s Leaves of Love fundraiser for Refugee Ministry. You can donate to ALIVE, Carpenter’s Shelter, Meals on Wheels, and other organizations serving “the least of these” in our communities.

We are building this plane together as we go.

And as for worship, here we are together online, your “Associate for Liturgy & Hilarity,” is ever so grateful and happy to report.

God bless technology and the internet. God bless Google and Youtube. God bless Constant Contact and WordPress. God bless Voice Memos and Zoom. God bless smart phones, tablets, laptops and desktops, too. On Sundays (or anytime) with “Emmanuel at Home” on our screens, we can still gather, hear the sounds of sacred music, read the scriptures, listen to a homily like this one, keep up our pledge, so that the church can keep being the church in this very needful time. Engage your kids with “Emmanuel Sunday School at Home.”  And via Zoom, we will gather at 11:30 AM, in the ‘virtual parish hall for ‘“Emmanuel at Home Coffee Hour.”  

Chuck and I will both be there. I hope you will be there too. 

And stay tuned, Holy Week: Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter, new creative versions of all, will also be coming to your inbox. Even in this upside down time, we will still be singing and shouting, “Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.”

Stay well, Emmanuel, stay well & keep the faith.

NOTE: If you receive this via email have trouble listening to homily, click on the “URL:https:….” at the bottom of email to go the U&U website.


Fly Me to the Moon & Let Me Sing Among the Stars

I remember Ash Wednesdays at my old parochial school, Holy Family. In the smoky incense-soaked church, Father So-and-So would smear our foreheads with ash. The rest of the school day, I would try mightily to preserve that charcoal smudge – hoping my bangs did not brush it away. I wanted to make certain that certain people would have a good view, important people like my parents, my friends’ parents, shopkeepers.

I had a reputation to uphold! What a holy little kid you are! A little saint deserving of a holy card! Particularly I would make sure that my Grandma Cady and my Grandma Peacock would get a good glimpse before I scrubbed it off of my face.

But I was just a kid and what did I really know about Ash Wednesday? It was just a children’s game to me: a dark and wonderful game the priest devised for us to play. Ring around the rosy, pocket full of posies. We all fall down.

The first day of Lent – Christians sing a dark and sad song. “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” Ash Wednesday is a stark reminder that life is short and fleeting, precious and precarious. This day reminds us that one day God will find us all in his morning paper – decked out on the obituary page.

Eight years old, thumbing through a family photo album, a yellowed newspaper clipping fell to my feet. Picking it up, it was a death-notice, the first I had ever read. It belonged to my Great-great-grandfather – Zachariah Hazel.

Zachariah had been a prominent Washington, D.C. businessman and architect the clipping effused. The story continued: Zachariah had helped to direct the completion of the Capitol building and the placement of the Freedom statue atop the dome. Whoa! What? What? What? Bursting with pride, I ran to my Grandma Peacock. “Wow, I did not know we were descended from someone so famous!’

Grandma Peacock wasted no time bursting my little eight-year old bubble. “No, Joani Baloney. Your Great-great-grandfather was nothing but a common laborer – and possibly a drunkard besides.” O well, apparently, he had written it himself. Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.

fly_me_to_the_moon_wallpaper_by_lama_art-d39xeq4

Open up your favorite digital newspaper and click on the obituary section. Every sooty cross marked upon our foreheads is a reminder of those who have gone before us – loved ones, fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers, friends, lovers.

Bittersweet, I recall when just a few years ago, I strew my own mother’s stardust on the ground. While Frank Sinatra crooned “Fly Me to the Moon” on my Ipod, my siblings and I returned her to the elements from whence she came. At Cedar Hill Cemetery, we scattered mom atop the graves of her loved ones: my dad, her parents, her in-laws, her best friend. To stardust and to her savior, my mom returned.

Death is the greatest of equalizers.

Whether we get an inch in the paper or a full-page spread, before God we are all to a person one and the same. “We are all made of stardust. It sounds like a line in a poem …but every element on earth was formed in the heart of a star.”

Exploding out of a supernova comes the stuff of which the planets are molded. Bursting out of a supernova is the stuff of which our bodies are made. Divinely formed from spit and stardust — to stardust we shall return.

Both biblically and cosmically, we traverse through this life with feet of clay. As Lent looms, let’s take a little look in the mirror. Let’s get a little introspective, a little penitential. A little time to reflect, pray, and possibly compose our own obituary.

Not like the one my not so great, Great-Great-Grandfather Zachariah Hazel wrote for himself, but a literally honest-to-God one.

Get it all out there. Don’t skip over the nasty bits. Put it all in there, warts and all. Personal confession is sobering stuff indeed. A cliché, yes, but it is truly true that confession is good for the soul.

Because no matter how messy our obituaries, the truth of Christ crucified is greater still. God’s wounded hands hung the stars. God’s outstretched arms reach out in love. God brings order to our earthly chaos and renewal to our earthly souls.

Yes, good God, “You are immortal, the creator and maker of humankind; and we are mortal, formed of the earth, and to earth we shall return. For so did you ordain us when you created us, saying, ‘You are dust, and to dust you shall return.’ All of us go down to the dust, yet even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.” Yes, good God, fly me to the moon and let me sing among the stars.

JoaniSign

NOTE: Wednesday, February 26th, my parish is hosting two Ash Wednesday services: one at noon and the other 7:30 PM: Emmanuel Episcopal Church, 1608 Russell Road, Alexandria, VA 22301. All are welcome!


Pregnant with Possibility

Once upon an Advent, I became an Anglican. Year’s end of 1984, to be exact.

Raised Roman Catholic and having spent my early adulthood agnostic, my ex-husband William and I followed breadcrumbs back to church. Not back so much really as forward. Instead of returning to the pews of our youth, we accepted an invitation to attend Immanuel on-the-Hill. (Yes, the other Emmanuel, directly across the street from Virginia Seminary.) Zach, my firstborn son was just three and Colleen was not quite six months

These little children led us to knock on the door of a church – a door we had not darkened for ages. The liturgy was strangely familiar – like a favorite old song but to a different tune. And — singing this new song was a vested woman at the altar! And we got to drink the wine, as well as, eat the bread. What a revelation this was!

Literally, leaving church on my very first Episcopal Sunday, the rector had a proposition for me. Would you like to join the worship planning committee?  Not just volunteer to read or be an usher, but to be a lay partner along with the priest planning the services of the coming season?  

Having grown up in a tradition, where women were only allowed behind the altar if they had a vacuum cleaner, I was gob smacked! Floored! 

Of course, I would love to! Yes!

And I do confess, this committee work helped fulfill a lifelong fantasy of mine – to be cast as Mary in the Christmas concert. The fantasy of every little Roman Catholic girl (and every little Protestant girl, too, I imagine!)

And alas, it came to pass for me this Advent of 1984. Recently pregnant and obviously not a virgin, at long last I had snagged the part of the BVM. Not quite as embarrassing as liturgical dance, in lieu of a sermon, I starred in a three-part liturgical drama: Mary! Pregnant with God!

Three parts. Three trimesters.

Advent 1. Surprised. Uncertain. Shaky. Nauseous. Scared.

Advent 2.  Blooming. Stretching. Aching. Hoping.

Advent 3. Heavy. Swollen. Sleepless. Bursting.

I burst into the Magnificat. 

It was Advent in the Eighties, and I wore Blessed Mother blue.

This is the blue season. The hangings are blue. The candles on the Advent wreath, except one, are blue. 

And maybe your mood is blue or the mood of those you love and care about is blue, too. And no matter where you get your news, you know too that this little blue marble on which we spin daily spins out of control: politically, environmentally, personally. Trying to have a holly jolly Christmas in this climate is a downright struggle.  In the darkness of these blue winter days, our world aches for light.

And on Advent 4, on the eve of the Christian solstice, we have walked almost all the way to Bethlehem. Walked beside a pregnant, unwed peasant girl – who artists for some reason have almost always draped in blue.

“…she was found to be with child… Her husband Joseph…planned to dismiss her quietly… But an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit… She will bear a son and you are to call him Jesus…after the prophet Isaiah who said, ‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son and they shall name him Emmanuel – which means ‘God with us.’”

Now this 1st century story is a hard sell in the 21st. And I confess to you, likewise it has always been a conundrum to this Christian.  Such an illustrious and exceptional birth was a common motif for the likes of emperors-turned-gods in the ancient world. 

There are twenty-four books in the New Testament and only two, Matthew and Luke, pay any attention to Jesus’ origins. Even John who preaches the Word made flesh, the same Word spoken at the dawn of creation, is totally uninterested in the how this came to be. 

But we Anglicans welcome wrestling with angels, unafraid to ask big questions of our faith.

Twenty-eight years ago, I crossed the street from my home parish Immanuel on-the-Hill to pursue a quest that has landed me in the pulpit this Sunday  at Emmanuel on High, and many Sundays before. And the very first sermon I ever preached in homiletics class was on Advent 4, Matthew 1:18-25, the virgin birth.

And it went something like this.

Hail Mary, never virgin, the Lord is with thee.

Shocked? Got your attention, right?

And what I mean by Hail Mary, never virginin the poetic sense, is that when it comes to God, Mary is anything but a virgin. Vulnerable, perplexed, she is remarkably open to the proposition of impossibly becoming pregnant with God. Conceiving within herself all that is divine, all that is holy. Pondering what all this could possibly mean in her heart (as the Lukan version tells us.)

Don’t get hung up on the biology, my fellow seekers. Focus on the theology. The meaning behind the mystery. Focus on the good news that the Word of God was made flesh and dwelt among us. Just as true in 1991, as it was in Year One.

How do we conceive of this Word of Love within us? How do we hear it, speak it, shout it from the rooftops, live it?

Like Joseph, what dream of God do we dream?

Like Mary, what does our pregnant soul proclaim?

After a pregnant pause, I returned to my seat. I was pretty sure I had flunked my first sermon, but I got an A – or maybe a B+ — I can’t quite remember. And the seminary did not kick me out.

And for twenty-five years, “Emmanuel, God with us” is the gospel I still imperfectly preach. And I am so grateful these past five years to have been able to preach it here at Emmanuel on High. Again, on Advent 4, on Matthew 1:18-25, on the virgin birth. 

I will not ask for another twenty-five, or boldly I just might. Look what God wrought with Sarah in her nineties and Elizabeth, as she was getting up in years. Ha! Every day is a gift. Every day no matter how bad or how awful or how wonderful is a holy day. Emmanuel, God with us, sticks by us in the ups and downs of our everyday – and in every way – ordinary lives.

So, Advent 4, let us all don Blessed Mother Blue, and sing along this version of Mary’s song, a song I know you have heard before.

Our souls magnify the Lord, and our spirits rejoice in God our redeemer, for God has looked with love on the lowliness of this earth. Generously, lavishly, the Lord blesses peoples of every generation. And in each and every human heart, God plants the seeds of all this is good. So that what was conceived in Mary, the Spirit of God this Christmas may also conceive in us: faith, hope and love. 

And the greatest of these is love, right?

Happy almost Merry Christmas!


Preaching — a Heartbeat away from Washington, D.C.

I am proud of my heritage and fond of telling visitors on my tours at the Library of Congress, that I am a sixth generation Washingtonian. As in D.C. While others move in and out of the city, with each passing administration, the Peacocks have stayed here from one decade to the next.

I believe this is so because we have never worked for the government or been in politics. We are the ordinary working people who love and call the District of Columbia home.

This does not mean that we have never been political, of course. I was raised by a Jesuit educated, Rockefeller Republican father. Dr. Peacock preached fiscal responsibility and championed civil rights. I myself am an aging hippie, who skipped school to protest the Vietnam War. A year shy of voting age, I rallied for George McGovern — who, as we all know, lost in a landslide to “Tricky Dick” Nixon.

I’ve lived in Alexandria, Virginia for over thirty years now, in the shadow of my beloved hometown. Alexandria has sometimes (mostly fondly) been called “The People’s Republic of Alexandria” — a predominantly blue bubble in what has become a purple state.

I am comfortable here, maybe a little too comfortable. My bleeding heart liberal politics are rarely challenged in my own backyard. And as preacher and pastor, in the pulpit I try to own that. I try to be honest and not self-righteously holier than thou. As if, Democrats had a monopoly on holier-than-thou. Far from it.

I serve a congregation whose bread and butter relies on both government and politics. While I discern the politics in our pews skew center-left, I am grateful that they are balanced with faithful folks on the right side of the aisle.

Politely, we Episcopalians believe that we check our politics at the church door. For middle child and peacemaker me, this has been a comfy place to be. Again, maybe too comfy.

I took a vow to preach the Gospel, not apologize for it.

St Bernard preaching in the public square.

The theologian Reinhold Niebuhr famously said he hoped his “preaching would comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” Not his own words exactly, Niebuhr was paraphrasing a Chicago journalist. In 1902, “Finley Peter Dunne wrote a column in the ‘everyman voice’ of fictional Mr. Dooley — a satiric ode to newspapers’ important place in society.” Dunne regularly critiqued Theodore Roosevelt and the President loved it, often sharing the commentary during his cabinet meetings.

Though public and political in its origins, the quote has a very biblical ring to it.

Reinhold Niebuhr picked it up in the aftermath of the atrocities of World War II. William Sloane Coffin Jr. used it as an anti-war rallying cry. Martin Marty, the Lutheran theologian, quotes the journalist to emphasize that in a me-first-world, God will be just as just with the rich, as he is merciful to the poor.

All three of these religious thinkers are staking a claim in the political sphere. Jesus did not preach in a vacuum. He challenged the corrupt powers and principalities of his day, who preyed on the outcaste and destitute.

Kingdom of God language is political language.

Which brings me to the political firestorm in which we find ourselves now.

In my 25 years of ordained ministry, five presidential elections have come and gone. And now in 2020, here comes the sixth. From the pulpit, I have never told anyone who to vote for. Democrats and Republicans, in many ways, have seemed virtually interchangeable — just leaning in a different direction every four to eight years. Brazen partisanship, I believe, does not have a place in the pulpit. But that does not mean that the policies of politicians and elected officials – aspirational or real — cannot be critiqued in church.

In fact, I took a vow to do just that. I took a vow to preach both love of God and love of neighbor. I took a vow to speak the truth in love.

Rabbi James Prosnit, last year, preached much the same on Rosh Hashanah morning:

I’ve tried never to be partisan. But as I’ve suggested to some, my rabbinic role requires me to be political — particularly when the Jewish values on issues are so clear in my mind. When it comes to God’s earth and this planet, Judaism has some things to say. When it comes to societal inequalities… our tradition reminds us that with privilege comes responsibility. And when it comes to something like immigration and refugee status, not only our texts, but our history and experience as Jews has a lot to teach those in power.”

Inheritors of the prophetic tradition, this is just as true for Christians, as it is for Jews. Just as true for this Episcopal priest, as it is for the rabbi.

And in this poisonous milieu, where we currently stew, Rabbi Prosnit continues,

The present mindset purposefully and blatantly exploits divisions by what we tweet, and by the names used to call out or belittle someone we disagree with.”

In the Twitter-sphere, and on social media, hate has found a home. A place where it is nourished and helped to flourish. Cyberspace has become a cowardly place, where bullies choose to hide. On Facebook, in a virtual world with like-minded friends, we don’t have to come face to face with anyone real. And we don’t have to take any real responsibility for the damage we do to the fragile social fabric — of our culture, communities, and country.

Our Sunday service means little, if it does not speak to the realities of our Monday through Saturday lives — if it does not speak to the precarious times in which we live. Our heavenly theology means nothing if it does not allow us to wrestle with everyday devils.

So nothing from the public sphere should be off limits in the pulpit or in our prayers. Not abortion, nor addiction, nor climate change, nor the death penalty, nor gun violence, nor healthcare, nor human rights, nor immigration, nor criminal justice, nor public safety, nor racism, nor anything else should be forboden.

This does not mean, of course that the priest and the preacher, are instant experts on current issues or world affairs, far from it. But it does mean that our faith can inform our thinking and move us to do, what Christians ought to do morally and ethically – to help heal this broken world.

And if you can’t talk about life’s most important issues in church, we might as well close our doors, right?

So, the Episcopal Church welcomes you, my friends. Come worship with us at Emmanuel at 1608 Russell Road in Alexandria, Virginia. Sunday mornings at 8:00 AM or 10:30 AM.

All are welcome. With all your questions. With all your concerns. With all your hopes. No exceptions.


Soul Cycling & The Blessing of the Bicycles (#2)

This post is about soul-cycling, but not the studio kind. No, it’s about the kind of ride that stirs the soul to raise up hope in a crazy world. I am talking about the rides of our lives – be they literally from the seat of a bike – or literally by the seat of our pants — in whatever our vocation might be.

As an Episcopal priest, I celebrate the sacraments. As Associate for Liturgy & Hilarity at Emmanuel, in an Excel spreadsheet, I construct our weekly worship.   Cycling (yes, pun intended) through the church’s seasons, I play liturgical Legos. With about a dozen moving parts, I piece together the service pulling from a variety of sanctioned sources.  The Book of Common Prayer, of course, but also the Book of Occasional Services, Enriching Our Worship, the Revised Common Lectionary, and the ELCA Sundays & Seasons prayers and petitions. Prayers and petitions, which I edit each week to reflect the needs of this god forsaken world.

A labor of love. At Emmanuel we use far more of the Book of Common Prayer than parishes who simply pick up the book. Episcopal worship is expansive, elastic and flexible. And here at Emmanuel, we flex as far as the rubrics will allow:

Rite III Youth Eucharist the first Sunday of the month.

The Blessing of the Animals in October.

A Contemplative Christmas in December.

A Celtic Eucharist in February.

Down to Earth Maundy Thursday in Holy Week.

Pentecost & Pride in June.

And the 2ndannual Blessing of the Bicycles to celebrate the summer solstice.

Last year we had 120 folks of all ages with their trikes and bikes. I brought and baptized my own new shiny red pseudo-Schwinn with the fat white tires. Though I confess, I have not ridden my bike much in the last year. Given my personal recent rocky road, I imagine I might be much better off if I had.

I am really an avid pedestrian. To keep myself walking, I started this thing called Soul Strolling – an hour’s sojourn and conversation, one on one, a parishioner and me, walking local highways and byways and trails. Muscles in motion is good for the soul.

So, maybe I should start Pedaling with the Pastor  to get me back on my bike. An hour’s ride with parishioner and priest, cycling together to some favorite watering hole or coffee shop. This great idea is not my idea. I stole from Pastor Ken Dixon.  He beat me to it.

Pastor Dixon, a Seventh Day Adventist minister, loved cycling but had not been on his bike in umpteen years. Moving from church to church and climate to climate, his bike gathered dust in his garage. He became a potato on his couch and gained weight to the point of being pre-diabetic. His VA doctor cut to the chase, “If you don’t do something about this, you’re going to die!” A come-to-Jesus moment, Pastor Dixon realized – for the sake of himself, his family and his parish – he had to get back on his bike.

“I didn’t want to stand in front of my congregation and tell them to care of their bodies when I am on the verge of dying!”

Dixon started cycling with half a dozen fellow Texas pastors. A few months in, he raised the stakes – sort of as a joke. “Let’s ride to the Adventist World Conference from Dallas to San Antonio!” What! No! Maybe! Incredibly quite a few said YES! “Seventeen riders from all different ages, races and places covered 350 miles in just five days.”

This pedal-powered mission strengthened more than just hearts and lungs. It broke down cultural barriers and bore fruit of a spiritual kind. Dixon’s idea took flight.

“Flight” by Yusuf Grillo

The Flight (pictured aboveis an “oil on board” painting by artist Yusuf Grillo. “It depicts a young family in native Yoruba dress, seated on a bicycle. While the man pedals…the woman sits on the bicycle bar cradling a baby.”

“Grillo started the painting during the Nigerian Civil War, a very painful time in his country’s history. Many lives were lost and many more were maimed. The memory of his people fleeing the violence was seared into his psyche.”

“He likened the forced migration to the flight of the Holy Family – fleeing Israel for Egypt.” Not on the back of a camel or donkey but on a bicycle. An icon for refugees everywhere, it symbolizes the very human search for safety, security and peace.

On May 12, 2018 Alana Murphy set out an 88-day, 4,380-mile bike ride across the country. Along the way, she conducted 65 interviews with refugees in 15 cities including Philadelphia, Detroit and Kansas City.

Alana’s idea took flight from the seat of her bike. “My hope was to make these stories and experiences accessible…’Refugee’ has become an increasingly divisive word. I realize most people in the U.S. have not had the opportunity to hear the stories of these incredible people….I spent the majority of my time riding through rural areas where many are not supportive of immigrants…By spending time in their communities, I was able to listen to their fears and concerns and learn about a part of our country that is often overlooked and misunderstood.”

As anyone who reads the news knows, as any who saw the photo of the Salvadoran father, Oscar Ramirez and toddler daughter Valeria, floating on the bank of the Rio Grande knows — immigrants’ desperate plight and flight is a harrowing, dangerous and heartbreaking road. As Christians – our faith compels us to respond with compassion. To welcome, embrace and shelter all such families as holy. As holy as Joseph, Mary and Jesus on the flight to Egypt. As holy as the Nigerian family fleeing danger on the back of a bike. 

And as citizens of our native land, I hope and pray this speaks to our American souls, as well. To address with all seriousness the humanitarian crisis on our southern border.

I looked into the Bible to find some wisdom about loving our neighbor on the open road. There are no scriptures that cite bicycles, of course. The closest I could get was the prophet Ezekiel:

As I watched the four creatures, I saw something that looked like a wheel on the ground…They were identical wheels, sparkling like diamonds in the sun. It looked like they were wheels within wheels, like a gyroscope… When the living creatures went, the wheels went; when the living creatures lifted off, the wheels lifted off. Wherever the spirit went, they went, the wheels sticking right with them, for the spirit of the living creatures was within the wheels.

Not about bikes, Ezekiel’s apocalyptic vision is about flight, the Israelites escaping from bondage in Babylon. It is about a freedom ride, a ride of a lifetime, and the return to the Promised Land. To life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness and hope. A wild ride that the whole world is on, really.

“More than anything,”Alana wrote, “I find myself dreaming about the next time I get back on a bicycle…cycling all day under blue skies, climbing mountain passes despite hail and rain and sleeping on the side of the road snug in my tent. Feeling just you and your bicycle facing the open road is something incomparable.” Something miraculous.Something to inspire whatever comes next. 

So, let’s all get back on our bikes – both metaphorical and real – and take flight. Soul cycling can do the world a whole lot of good.


Pentecost & Pride: June 9th @Emmanuel!

This year the Feast of Pentecost and Pride month overlap. Pentecost celebrates the gift of understanding. Disciples from all over the ancient world opened their ears to hear and to listen to their brothers and sisters whose language and culture were not their own.

Pride Month celebrates the diversity of voices in the LGBTQ community. It is a time to hear and open our ears and to give thanks for all of our gay, lesbian and transgender sisters and brothers. Pentecost and Pride together celebrate our common humanity and love of neighbor.

For my parish, a congregation of the Diocese of Virginia in the Episcopal Church of the good old U.S.A., theologically this celebration has been a long time in the making. Generations of Episcopalians have wrestled with a variety of angels over the years and now wholeheartedly endorse the full inclusion of gay persons in the life of church: in the pews, in leadership, in ordination and in marriage.

June 9th, Emmanuel will celebrate Pentecost & Pride in prayer and song, in scripture and sacrament at both the 8:00 AM and 10:30 AM services.

Following the rector’s homily, the congregation will lift up in prayer the LGBTQ community with these words:

Litany of Inclusion

O wildly inclusive God, you love all that you have created, and with you we celebrate the diversity of your creation. Throughout history with your people, you have reminded us that those whom the world has unjustly seen as the least are cherished as the greatest in your eyes. We ask that you give us the grace to uplift our LGBTQ sisters and brothers as they live authentically in the world. Teach us to honor and appreciate their gifts and help us to create a world in which all who are equal in the eyes of God are also equal under the law: loved, accepted and celebrated. We remember especially members of the LGBTQ community who have been marginalized in our churches and victimized by hate. We ask this in the name of the Holy One, in whose image all are created.

Celebrant Blessed be God, who loves all creation!
People God’s love has no exceptions, Alleluia!

Celebrant We are the body of Christ! Justice seeking, bread breaking, hymn singing, risk taking
People The Body of Christ!

Celebrant Baptized by one Spirit, we are members of one body.
People Many and varied in culture, gender, age, class and ability, we are members of Christ’s Body.

Celebrant None of us can say to another, “I have no need of you.”
People For only together can we find wholeness.

Celebrant None of us can say to another, “I will not care for you.”
People For we are connected like muscle and bone. If one suffers, we all suffer. If one rejoices, we all rejoice!

Celebrant Come in, all are welcome. Come with your longings, your questions, and your fears.
People Come with your dreams of a better day, one with dignity and safety for all!

Celebrant Thanks be to God who in Christ has made us one!

Amen!

Join us this Sunday, June 9th at Emmanuel Episcopal Church 1608 Russell Road Alexandria, VA. 8:00 AM early service or 10:30 AM with music. All are welcome! Hope to see you there!



1 Comment

Thirst Quenching Waters

In the beginning, the Spirit of God moved over the waters and the universe was born (13.5 billion years ago or so.) Alpha. Genesis. Birth. And here as scripture comes to an end, Christ pours us a bracing cup of living water. Omega. Revelation. Rebirth. As it was in the beginning, so it shall be in the end.

In the beginning, we all get our start in water: safely tucked inside the womb, cramped and cradled until it is time, until the contractions start and the water breaks. Out we come on a wave of living water, squirming and screaming full throttle into God’s crazy world.  A beautiful mess.

The rhythm of life begins and its pretty good. You eat. You sleep. People carry you around and sing to you, play peek-a-boo with you. Everything is just great until someone gives you that first bath. Have you ever given a baby their first bath? They wriggle and squirm. It is beyond their comprehension why you would subject them to this torture. Babies do not realize that there is dried milk behind their ears and dirt between their toes and they don’t care. But their parental units do care, and they are going to give that baby a bath because they know what is good for them.

A few years ago, I had the great pleasure of baptizing seven of God’s children on a single Sunday morning: one adult, four babies and two toddlers. There was a little three-year-old named Eric who was not too keen on this baptism thing. At the class the day before, Eric hung back not wanting to “play baptism” with me. Very cautious, very skeptical, very astute for a three-year-old. 

On Sunday morning, poor little guy reeled in agony as his mom lifted him up and leaned in over the font. He waved his metal truck wildly screaming NOOOOOOOOOO!!I ducked but managed to dribble a little water on his frantic forehead. 

Eric, I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Eric, you are sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever. 

At this point, indignant little Eric is wiping his face with the little linen towel. I knelt down to half apologize. Sorry little guy. Baths aren’t always fun. But that was God’s love, the water of life, raining down on your head. 

Let everyone who is thirsty come. Let everyone who wishes, take this water of life as a gift.

Deep in the first century on the Island of Patmos a man named John (no, not the apostle John, a different John) wrote down his wild and wooly visions. Vivid fantastical pictures of his community’s struggle under the persecution of Rome. The visions are at times violent and terrifying, filled with beasts and dragons. Allegorical and symbolic, the powers of good battle the powers of evil. Neither really wins but hope literally springs eternal. The water of life soaks the soil sprouting seeds and drenching roots. Maybe there can be a new heaven and a new earth. Maybe life really can rise out of death.

20 centuries on, we live in an equally thirsty world. Peruse the news and lots of it is not so good. Division reigns. Tribalism rules. We seem endlessly locked in a struggle of us versus them. We cling to power rather than pursue the common good. Entrenched in our bubbles and bunkers, we demonize those who disagree with us, those who do not believe like us, and those who do not love, like us. Beasts and dragons, one and all, we cast them out. We fight a futile scorched earth offensive, where living water is hard to find.

Once upon a time, there was a little parish tucked on the side of a hill struggling on their own little Island of Patmos. The parish had a strong tradition of outreach to the community. Their neighbors were both poor and without a roof over their heads. So, they organized a soup kitchen and an overnight shelter. They hammered nails repairing houses and they sat bedside with the sick. But there was another thirst in the community — just as deep — hoping to be quenched. 

The apartments around the church were home to a host of Ethiopians, many of whom had fled the oppressive government of the late Haili Sallassi – and most of these Ethiopians were Christians. But adrift in Northern Virginia, they had no spiritual home, no literal House of God to call their own. So, the people of this little parish flung wide their doors and welcomed their neighbors in. They decided to share their worship space and birthed a new congregation: The Ethiopian Orthodox Incarnation, Noah’s Ark, Holy Mother Church. (Yes, that really was its name!)

On Saturday afternoons, this little Episcopal Church was transformed. Icons were propped up in every window. The priest swung the thurible; incense rose to the skies. A hundred praying people huddled in the pews. Living water flowed and Christ was worshipped anew.

So, Emmanuel, turn your eyes toward heaven. Look up into the ceiling of the sanctuary. The wooden scaffolding resembles the ribs of an upside-down ship. Now, we Episcopalians have nerdy words for everything and we call the sanctuary the nave. Literally a Latin naval word for ship – nave was an early icon of the church. Hop aboard the ark. The waves of life may be rough but Christ captains the boat.

This holy water sloshes and splashes over, above and around. Remember Matthew 25: I was thirsty, and you gave me drink? With every item dropped into the ALIVE Food Pantry basket, with every juice box packed into lunch bags for the homeless, with every cup of Saturday morning coffee poured at Carpenter’s Shelter; with every Sunday morning sip from the communion cup, Emmanuel’s water breaks, and Christ quenches a thirsty world.

Come, let everyone who is thirsty come. Let anyone who wishes, take the water of life as a gift.