Born (near) the Fourth of July

Happy birthday, America.

It’s been great to splash in your streams, bob in your lakes, drink in the deep green fragrance of your forested hillsides. You are a land of landscapes, a place where I have found happiness in solitude and quiet companionship with the very greatest and least of creation.

You also made my beautiful best friend of a husband into the man he is. Your complicated politics challenged him to live out what Jesus asked of us all, and your amazing educational system gave him the tools to love learning for a lifetime. Our amazing opportunity to live abroad is rooted in the feeling of home here. Our marriage is rooted in the way that promises and hope are still the foundations of all good communities, including the smallest of them.

I’m proud of you, America, just as I am proud of all the beautiful things I participate in. Children’s lives, communities, extended and extending families. The closer I get to a certain tween in my life, the more I realize how much this kind of encouragement matters to all people. We’re all still in process.

There’s a lot for me to laugh at here, including platter-sized chicken fried steak, angry drivers, and a whole bunch of nonsense about professional sports. There’s a lot that is no laughing matter, like the way that you forgot that we were once all immigrants or the fear you have of our neighbors and friends. Your power is in humility, not in humiliation.

Maybe we all need chances to feel a little more shock and awe at the presence of Love and the ultimate power of healed hearts on the mountaintops and a little less of the habit of exploding over the desert of broken relationships between our selves and our places. Maybe we could try war a little less? Seek peace a little more?

A birthday party isn’t the best time to embarrass you, but it’s a good time to check in and say that I’m still paying you attention. While we’re celebrating your best, it’s another chance for us to work on heading deeper into the right directions, led on by how much good builds on good.

This is a pretty long birthday card, I guess. I love you, America. Always will.


From Being Useful to Just Being

Hi friends,

Part of why I wanted to revive this blog was as a chance to document the processes of getting to Rome, getting to be married, and getting to do ministry over the coming years. A place to record what it felt like before, and a place to hold our visions for the “after”.

The past few months have been a blur of preparation. Mostly, that has meant asking the hard questions about what items are necessary to feel “at home” here and whether they are worth their weight to carry. Each thing means not bringing a different thing. Some are available here, new; some are not. Some make sense to give to others; some are, inevitably, trash no matter how useful they once seemed.

the interior of my second checked "bag" from the spring moving trip
tuna in foil packets, reese’s peanut butter eggs, my yoga mat and a birthday surprise… and it all miraculously arrived intact!

But arriving here in Rome for the first long stretch of settling has been filled by one big struggle after another. A delayed bag, a sudden sickness, the throes of pubescent hormones. Now that the first round of bags are unpacked, I’m beginning to settle in and see what work there is to do to integrate into life here… And it’s going to be work!


You see, I have always thought of myself as a competent, capable, confident woman. I’ve run my own business well. I’ve accomplished complicated and meaningful tasks. I’ve done things. And all of these activities have left me with a somewhat brittle shell, I admit: I have been, for so long, what I do. My value to the world is in what I can get done and give.

So, when I lost our family’s grocery loyalty card (inside the the grocery store!) yesterday, it was a watershed moment. As in, I shed tons of water crying over losing something important to our daily life that I simply do not know how to recover.

But also it’s a moment of coming around to the other side of the hill. After so long of feeling like I could do things–and on my own!–I was reduced to tears because I could not simply ask my fellow shoppers or helpful clerks whether they had seen my card or what I might do to find it or replace it.

I circled the store. I retraced my steps. I breathed in and out, in and out. I was alone and helpless, and nothing could put things right again. And finally, I walked home with my heavy head, feeling sorrier for myself with every curb over which I yanked my overloaded carello.

Because I have wanted to be useful here. To contribute to our family life, not to make us waste precious time searching and asking and replacing and doing something that was already done. And honestly, since I don’t speak well enough, I know that all that “we” talk actually means asking someone else with his own work going on to do it for me. Adding on to someone else’s to do list. Not doing it all myself, stubbornly, like the cosmic kindergarten child I still am. I suffer because I am still clinging to what it was like then, not what it is to be where I am now.

I give up my claims to comfort. And one of these days, I promise I’ll give up my claim to only being happy when things go my way.

I’m passing through. The pilgrim gives. The pilgrim receives.

We’ll get a new card. It will come in the mail weeks from now, but I bet we can get a temporary one to hold us over. We will restart counting our points, and I will find a way to build a good habit of memory around its use and keeping so that we don’t have to repeat this effort again and again. I will even learn to ask for help in a new tongue.

But it’s a humbling grace to wake up today and know that it’s going to work out, even if I don’t know how yet.

Honestly, I am writing this silly story down because one day it will remind me to laugh with this memory that losing our DOC*Roma card felt like the most important thing that happened all day one day. Had it not been for that, I could have kept on believing that I had it all together. Ha!

This is what this part of life is: embracing that, while there are still things I can do, I am not here for the purpose of having it all together, alone. I’m supposed to trust that someone else giving me the gift of doing things for me is a blessing to them, no matter how frustrated it makes me. My time will come to give, too, especially as I learn this language and this culture.

I will transition from tourist to pilgrim to being at home, right here. I might have to lose a few more things in the process, though.

Midweek Advent 1 Reflection

Maleah Pusz

Wednesday 6 December 2017

Advent 2

St. David’s In-The-Valley, Cullowhee, NC


I ask God’s grace as we ponder an old story made new in the season of expectation, journey, and wonder. Amen.

This Advent season finds us opening a new year of our life together before all other things close, much like last Sunday’s apocalyptic Gospel reading starts us in an end of a book rather than perfectly aligned at the fresh beginning of a Chapter 1 for Advent 2. And why shouldn’t it be that what grace we take from our sacred space here sanctifies the work of doing our waiting “out there” in the overlap? We are conditioned to accept, by way of the relationships that form us into adults, the great mystery that life was here before us and will come after us, even when we don’t quite understand it.

We are always starting in the middle.

When we meet a new friend, a potential lover, a beloved mentor, we deepen our bonds by asking to hear every story they’re willing to tell about what it was like to be them before they were with us. Stitch by stitch, we embroider our lives with theirs and their hard-won wisdom. We bind our lives together and do our best to note the diversity within our unity: who are the gluten-free at our table? whose father is a sore subject of conversation best left for prayerful silences? who celebrates a recovery? who mourns a lifelong love lost?

In relationship, we grow as we hear ourselves speak, hearing our past tumble out of us newly re-formed, learning lessons that might have remained hidden before. We apologize for things that often need no apology, we battle our own ghosts instead of engaging the flesh and blood of our present partner. We sometimes speak without thinking, and can be thoughtlessly hurtful.

Giving oneself finally, fully over to being in relationship with any human being is embracing a mess—and being embraced as a mess in turn.

In my own life, as a not-yet-stepmother, I have new lessons to learn. As I confide in friends about the messiness of reimagining and remaking family in the middle of everything, I am trying to understand how parenthood works for those of us who were gifted with a frightening amount of Love for “other people’s” children and all the complications of emotion entailed. Sometimes, I wince at the well-meant but hurtful reply, “Yeah, but you knew what you were signing up for when you started.”

Did some woman in her circle of friends say this very thing to Mary, the Mother of God? As her body told a story her society didn’t have a room for, how did she meet that expectation—while she held together both her first-hand knowledge of human life in its dust and dirt and her awe at a transcendent and as-yet-unembodied Creator?

How did Mary, our consummate Mother, make her preparations through all those earlier, quieter months of anticipation and challenge? How did she walk faithfully into this final stretch of longing for an event that begins a new Life—which always interrupts the middles of established ones? How many of her own experiences felt reassuring, even into Egypt and Galilee, because they were made recognizable by participating in motherhood like so many generations before? And as her own understanding of His power and place changed with each new day, how did she awaken to her own strength to claim a role forged brand new by this specific child, this specific life, this specific Love?

As she waited for the mystery of the Christ child to arrive, did she also know to await the arrival of an accompanying grief, saying to herself: “I can do almost nothing to spare this child whom I love more than breath itself from the unvarnished truth of pain and suffering in this imperfect human life?”

Did she know that being left standing on the outside of His life while He privileged his spiritual family over their blood connection could sting as badly as hearing “you’re not my mother” flung with the acid of preteen angst?

But you knew what you were signing up for when you started… No, but you might get a taste of it. We might have heard this story before.

And then we start this journey together anyway, because that is what Love does.

See, the messiness of being in relationship to the human family is knowing that the inevitable end will also come one day.

While on a family trip to Venice this September, our feisty tour guide walked us past the local hospital and described the beautiful view of the graveyards from the maternity ward. She smiled as rambunctious kids played soccer in the shadows of the crosses and spires of Basilica dei Santi Giovanni e Paolo next door and speedboat ambulances idled in the water, waiting.

What better to remind us, she said, that we make a small part of the whole cycle? Every day is a gift.

My soul sings in gratitude.

I’m dancing in the mystery of God.

The light of the Holy One is within me

and I am blessed, so truly blessed.


This goes deeper than human thinking.

I am filled with awe

at Love whose only condition

is to be received.


The gift is not for the proud,

for they have no room for it.

The strong and self-sufficient ones

don’t have this awareness.


But those who know their emptiness

can rejoice in Love’s fullness.

It’s the Love that we are made for,

the reason for our being.

It fills our inmost heart space

and brings to birth in us, the Holy One.

–John Shelby Spong, A New Christianity for a New World


Even though I have re-read the Magnificat pretty often through the Daily Office, I am just beginning to see the fierceness of unconditional and pro-creative Love as Mary takes a place beyond roleplay in the story of salvation. She sets the example, living out the poetry of hope she sings regarding the new Life coming who will remove the sting from Death itself. The Blessed One who comes to us in the name of the Lord, long awaited and mighty. Once unknowable. And now uncompromisingly incarnate.

For it is her new life she dreams of—and ours, if we choose to embrace it again this season. Could we not also take this moment to give thanks that Christ will come again to widen our circle? To listen again to the promise that we will see the glory of the Lord in our lifetime, and to celebrate how we already have? To know beyond doubt that the apocalyptic thunder in the clouds is the sound of our very own heart giving way again to a new and heavenly peace? There will come a time, in the stillness after the storm, when we will be able to hear what God is saying to us now.


Quiet friend who has come so far,

feel how your breathing makes more space around you.

Let this darkness be a bell tower

and you the bell. As you ring,


what batters you becomes your strength.

Move back and forth into the change.

What is it like, such intensity of pain?

If the drink is bitter, turn yourself to wine.


In this uncontainable night,

be the mystery at the crossroads of your senses,

the meaning discovered there.


And if the world has ceased to hear you,

say to the silent earth: I flow.

To the rushing water, speak: I am.


Thinking about home

Asked to speak for Wednesday Advent service, which means I have too many things to say and not enough time to say them.

So here is one of the pieces that doesn’t fit, but is no less true:

In the quiet of winding down my life on this continent slowly—so slowly, in fact, that people are regularly surprised that I’m still here—I have been given such an abundant gift of time to meditate on the mystery of the daily life of our little, faithful, Episcopal community. As Michael promised me ten years ago in our little weekly formation group, these words have become the words of my heart, these seasons frame my thoughts. And as Muff so wisely called it, we sure are some “free range lambs”.

We have prepared so many tables full of bread and wine and soup and lemonade and I have been blessed to hold the cup of our wholeness, the blood of the new covenant, to the lips of you, my sweetest and dearest friends. We have sought Christ and served all kinds of people and loved our neighbors, be they farmworkers or college football fans. We have confessed our sins and taken hold of our forgivenesses, we have been challenged by the holy orders that Michael and Alice and others lived out among us, and we have buried what will always be too many of our friends and family. We have been showered with holy water whether we liked it or not and renewed our fight for justice in our time, prayed for peace among all people, and we have upheld and respected the dignity in every human being including the ones who post things to Facebook without spell checking.

If I know how to be in relationship at all–how to begin to love well what is mine and let go of what is not mine–it is because I have seen you do it first.

How did you get here?

–How did you get here?

Usually when I ask someone else this, they have responded with a flatfooted answer:

–By car; didn’t you?

–By walking. I was just around the corner.

–By flying, silly! How else do you get over an ocean?

It’s as if we’re so used to the feeling of not being heard (or wanting to be clever) that we can’t risk going with the deep answer first.

We avoid telling our story too quickly on first meeting. First impressions matter so much, and what if I change my answer later? What if what I think I know about my journey now is not what I’ll know of it later on? What if I’m in an awkward part of the story right this minute?

Luckily, being in the in-between doesn’t stop us from finding a deep connection, if we’re honest–and if anything, it enhances it.

And the day came when the risk

to remain tight in a bud

was more painful than

the risk it took to blossom.

-Anaïs Nin

So, I got here after 30 years of venturing outward from a small, rural town in Southern Appalachia, from a loving and complicated family, through such diverse jobs as chocolatier, Christian missionary, restaurant bookkeeper, and small-town wine shop owner, toward a union with something bigger that I have variously called Love, or God, or the Universe, or Creation, or the Human Family, or Christ, or Logic, or sometimes something I couldn’t have called anything at all. I’ve been looking for a thread, writing about a thread, trying to wear or make or buy a thread to connect it all.

I’ve been lucky or blessed or hard at work to find good people to walk beside. And, as I start off on another grand adventure, I’ve decided that this might just be the place to keep a record of the next couple of chapters for my benefit and maybe for yours.

Good thoughts of love and life always,


Basel to Rome

Arrival in Rome tomorrow …parts of the office that jump out:

Glorify the Lord, O chill and cold, *
drops of dew and flakes of snow

Frost and cold, ice and sleet, glorify the Lord, *
praise him and highly exalt him for ever.

Glorify the Lord, O nights and days, *
O shining light and enfolding dark.

Romans 14:19

Let us then pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding.

Romans 14:22

The faith that you have, have as your own conviction before God. Blessed are those who have no reason to condemn themselves because of what they approve.

John 8:58-59

Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, before Abraham was, I am.” So they picked up stones to throw at him, but Jesus hid himself and went out of the temple.

Apostles’ Creed

I believe in God, the Father almighty,
creator of heaven and earth.

I believe in Jesus Christ, his only son, our Lord.
He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit
and born of the Virgin Mary.
He suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried.
He descended to the dead.
On the third day he rose again.
He ascended into heaven,
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again to judge the living and the dead.

I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic Church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting. Amen.

The Lord’s Prayer 

Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your Name,
your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as in heaven.

Give us today our daily bread.
Forgive us our sins
as we forgive those
who sin against us.

Save us from the time of trial,
and deliver us from evil.

For the kingdom, the power,
and the glory are yours,
now and for ever. Amen.

May the God of hope fill us with all joy and peace in believing through the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen. Romans 15:13

Back to WNC

Getting ready to go back to the US after a very intense, yet very rewarding summer.  We’ve had much higher attendance this summer, got to spend 8 weeks with Cate Hendren (ministry intern from Davidson), and the refugee peace flag and jewelry collective is starting to take off. I am thankful for how God continues to bless us here at St. Paul’s.

It’s been 6 weeks since I’ve seen my daughter and I can’t wait to give her a big hug tomorrow.  Will spend time with family and friends, get to study two books (Love Wins by Rob Bell and Love Alone is Credible by Hans Urs Von Balthasar) with my seminary classmates, and hopefully have some alone time in the mountains to reflect.


For Christian Unity Week

I was invited to preach this sermon at the Centro Pro Unione this week.  The lecturer was Ladislas Orsy, a 91 year old professor at Georgetown who attended the second Vatican Council.  Orsy spoke about Dignitatis Humanae and what it has given to the church and the world.  It was an honor to be asked to preach, and an even greater one to share the moment with wonderful ecumenical colleagues in Rome.

Luke 24:13-35, Dignitatis Humanae

Week of Prayer for Christian Unity

January 24, 2013

Centro Pro Unione, Piazza Navona

“If we had the right kind of eyes, the right ears, we would look at a person and we would see their divinity shining through.”

Desmond Tutu, the famous Archbishop of Cape Town, said those words at a church service a few years ago in which unity was the theme. Now 81 years old, Tutu is best remembered for his faith, and the groundbreaking work he did in South Africa because of it. Most of us are quite aware of the racial segregation that was part of the South African political and cultural landscape during the middle to latter part of the 20th century–the system known as apartheid.

Tutu not only led the economic boycott movement following the Soweto Uprising in 1976, which eventually paved the way for the fall of apartheid, but he then chaired the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 1995, which brought victims and perpetrators of crimes face to face in public hearings.

Deep pain and divisions surfaced in the hearings as both abuser and abused told the stories of their lives, sometimes in front of several of their peers. While that truth telling did not undo the violence which had been perpetrated, nor bring back the lost loved ones or innocence of a past age, it did help transition the nation into a new era.

And as an impressionable 2nd grader, I remember being totally in awe of the Archbishop who helped orchestrate that healing, with God’s help, of course.

I remember very few school assignments or projects from that stage of my life, but I will never forget the report I did on Bishop Tutu, as our class remembered and celebrated Black History month, nor the football-esque head I gave him, which was balanced precariously on his pencil-thin frame.

Mrs. Howell, my teacher, was so proud, namely because I had not produced yet another report on Michael Jackson (it was the year of Thriller after all!), or Magic Johnson, the famed Los Angeles Lakers basketball player. As large as those figures were in my childhood imagination, it was Tutu, and that work of reconciliation and truth-telling…the work of the gospel itself…which towered above them all.

Those of us gathered here today in Rome, in the year 2013 and in this week of Christian unity, are called to the work of reconciliation and truth telling as well. Indeed, we are called by Christ to engage in this work will all our hearts, all our souls, and all our minds.

While the stain of apartheid may not haunt us directly, we still have past hurts and scars that must be brought into the light of God’s grace, so that we may move into a deeper experience of the reconciled unity we share through our common savior.

That work happens on a conciliar level, no doubt, and it happens on a personal level, as we seek deeper understanding of each other, so that we might act and witness together in a an advancing secular age… and more fully engage Christ’s work of proclaiming good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, and freedom for the oppressed.

Thank God for all of you who are devoted to this work, and for the great lengths to which you go, with God’s help, in the pursuit of unity. In the short time I have been here among you, I have witnessed sincere affection, rich dialogue, and a genuine desire to live into the one-ness we both know and are called to in Christ.

That oneness is Trinitarian in form: it is a unity borne of the fundamental relationships within the divine self… a unity that does not erase difference and diversity, but rather proclaims the full personhood of each of its members as essential to establishing relationship. One substance, three persons.  One body, many members. It is a unity that cannot be coerced, but rather, invited and accepted.

Like so many of the intangibles we strive for as human beings: faith, hope, love …truth.

No amount of coercion would have brought about healing and reconciliation in South Africa following apartheid.

But sharing the stories of pain and loss, linked the oppressor and oppressed together and revealed their shared need for reconciliation. In the best cases, the invitation to tell the truth to each other, and the hard work of staying at the table and accepting that invitation, helped them to see each other anew.

No longer as enemies, but as children of the same God.

No longer as strangers, but friends.

The third section of Dignitatis Humanae contains the following passage:

“Truth… is to be sought after in a manner proper to the dignity of the human person and his social nature. The inquiry is to be free, carried on with the aid of teaching or instruction, communication and dialogue, in the course of which men explain to one another the truth they have discovered, or think they have discovered, in order thus to assist one another in the quest for truth. Moreover, as the truth is discovered, it is by a personal assent that men are to adhere to it.”

The Second Vatican Council recognized that truth, freedom and faith go hand in hand.

Jesus, though seemingly a stranger, walks with Cleopas and the unnamed other disciple on the road to Emmaus, and invites them to speak the truth they have discovered.

They too had a painful story to share, because their hopes in the Messiah had been apparently dashed. They tell the truth about this as they walk beside each other on the road. Jesus goes on to “assist them in the quest for truth,” by interpreting the scriptures to them, by “teaching and instructing” them.

And, as so well stated in Dignitatis Humanae, Jesus does not force them to accept that instruction, but offers it to them freely, respecting both the human dignity and the free will with which they, and we, are endowed by the Creator. In fact, it is Cleopas and the other disciple who come closest to coercion!  As Jesus begins to move on into the night, they “almost force him” to stay as he begins to go on (the Greek is parabiasanto meaning “to urge strongly”), but stop just short of it.

\I imagine they were impassioned for sure in their invitation since “their hearts were burning within them,” but stopped short of forcing Jesus to remain with them for a meal, out of respect. However, Jesus accepts their invitation, and is ultimately revealed to them as the resurrected Messiah for whom they hoped in the breaking of bread.

In this reading from Luke, we see Jesus establishing a pattern for future ministry and engagement, and we see his followers choosing to accept the pattern and put it into practice. Jesus invites them to speak their truth, they accept. Jesus instructs them about the scriptures, and they put his ministry of hospitality into action, which leads to the revelation that he was already among them the entire time they walked together.

Telling the truth leads to action and ultimately to the revelation of a unity that can never be broken, not even by the sting of death, because we are bound together in the very heart and womb of God.

It is a pattern that has been repeated through generations of the faithful bound by Christ, from Tertullian to Teresa, Theodore to Tillich, Thomas to Tutu. And it is a pattern that may yet guide us as we seek to more fully follow the one in whom our unity was won.

“If we had the right kind of eyes, the right ears, we would look at a person and we would see their divinity shining through.”

On this auspicious occasion, may God grant us shared vision and an even deeper desire and will to hear the truth through each other’s stories, and respect each other’s dignity.

May we reach forth our hands in love, as Christ did, and witness to the truth as one body, one substance—diverse, beautiful, and holy.

And may God be revealed, praised, and proclaimed among us fervently ‘til the end of the age.

Welcome Back Sunday and Christian Witness

I, like many Americans abroad, have been carefully watching the situation concerning the bombing of the consulate in Benghazi and the ensuing protests around other embassies throughout the Middle East.  Not only because we have several members of the diplomatic community that attend our church, but due to the presence of 150-200 predominantly Muslim men who come into our refugee center each weekday, requesting assistance as they stuggle as political refugees.

As a relatively well educated Western Christian, I have a hard time understanding how a video (it is little more than that from my view) can somehow be raised up as representative of my country’s views on Islam.  My gut says that it is more an excuse for violence than the cause, and I suspect that those who would prefer a world of violence to one of peace are using it to their advantage.  More than anything this exposes the shadow side of our global communication networks and the rapid dissemation of information, even mis-information.

I do not condone such portrayals of Muslims or Mohammed (nor such poor use of blue screen tech!), but at the end of the day, freedom of speech is one of the hallmarks of what it means to me to be American and to be free.  Even when it is abhorrent to me, or when something is done in poor taste, there is something about suppressing speech, especially under the threat of violence, that smells like fear and totalitarianism to me.  How many times have Jews had to deal with assasinations on their character or their faith tradition?  How many practicioners of Earth religions have been persecuted for their faith and practices? And let’s not even mention Christians, who daily have hordes of assaults from all sides.  Each religion of any import has had to deal, at one time or another, with mischaracterization and those who fundamentally disagree with them about their understanding of the world.  Do I like when angry atheists talk about Jesus’ followers being idiots who follow a “zombie Jesus?”  No.  But, I believe that their freedom to say that should be protected.  Where I draw the line is when that free speech calls for violence on the others, or the objects of their hate.  At this point the speech ceases to be the expression of an opinion and moves into the realm of marching orders or incitement.  Protecting free speech is important, but protecting the lives of those who fall victim to hate and intolerance is even more important to me.  As an extreme example, even the KKK should be protected from violence against its members, as misguided and abhorrent as their message is to me.  But if they rely on violence rather than merely the non-violent expression of their views, then police action is needed.

I admit the lines between what consitutes hate speech and free speech are fine indeed.  I am no constitutional scholar, but just a man of faith with an opinion on these matters.  I tend to lean toward a postive presentation of my position, rather than choosing to denigrate others to make my point.  I am Christian, and Episcopalian to be more specific, and I have good reasons why if you would like to hear them.  But I see as a requirement of my following Christ, a certain worldview that includes even those I disagree with, even those who would make themselves my enemy, as fellow children of the God I proclaim.  My energies are spent working to increase understanding of that “shared” heritage, rather than in promoting unhelpful division.  I often fail at doing that fully; I often fall short of being the person I am called to be.  But I am convinced that the only way we move closer to the ideal is by walking forward, falling, getting back up, and walking again.  It is a shared work within community, and yet one which happens personally within the very fiber of our individual beings.  I pray that as I get older I will improve, that my resistance to the insults of my enemies will grow stronger, and that the gospel of love and grace that I have experienced and known in Jesus will be translated to those I meet in greater ways.

And I give thanks for the freedom of speech that allows me to say so!

I am printing here the sermon I gave yesterday at St. Paul’s as a further meditation on this issue in the context of our worship yesterday.  Blessings to you all,


Mark 8:27-38

Proper 19 / Welcome Back Sunday

September 16, 2012

St. Paul’s Within the Walls

The Core of Christianity

It has been quite a week in the world.

This Tuesday, on the 11th anniversary of the September 11th, 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States, new violence began to spread throughout the Middle East.

US Ambassador Chris Stevens and three others were killed in a rocket attack in Benghazi, Libya, and US embassies in several countries across the region were attacked by angry protestors.

It is hard to say what is the true root of the violence.  Many of the protestors have cited outrage over a third-rate film which depicts Mohammed and Muslims horribly, though the film is little more than a badly made home video.

Others suspect that the film is an excuse for violence and is being used to whip up fury by groups and organizations opposed to any Western involvement in the predominately Muslim region.

It is difficult to see where all this will lead, but as I’ve watched the situation unfold, read articles and comment streams, and I thought about how all this worldly violence and uncertainty affects those of us gathered here today, I found myself praying for a way out of such madness. And then I found I couldn’t help but weigh the words of our Gospel today with the angry words I read in those comments and the violence I saw in news clips.

I must admit that I had some reticence about even addressing the issue, noting that on the first of our two Welcome Back Sundays, in which we are celebrating and encouraging both new and old members to engage in ministry here at St. Paul’s, it may seem heavy to talk about international politics. I mean, look at this amazing physical space in which we worship!  Listen to our choir!

Just as we are surrounded by hardship and horror in the world, so are we also are surrounded by beauty and glory. It is indeed tempting for me to focus solely on the beautiful and leave the difficult for another time and another day.

However, if we are to be Christians… If we want to claim to be followers of Jesus Christ, then there is no running away from the consequences of God’s kingdom made known to us in Christ. To be Christian is to face the challenges of our day and age directly, relying on guidance from Scripture and Sacrament, reason and tradition, and above all following the lead of our Savior.

My friends, my brothers and sisters, I want to take this opportunity to reflect together on what I see as the core message of Christianity, that comes to us in this Gospel passage in Mark today.

That message is this: We Christians proclaim the reign of God in Jesus Christ, combatting fear and its effects with radical love, and follow Jesus in faith to the cross and beyond to resurrection and new life. This message informs how we respond to violence, to insults, and to a world of principalities and powers… a world of competing kingdoms and kings.

It is not an easy message, or a popular message, but it IS Christ’s message.

So let us turn our atte ntion to it.

The first part of Mark’s Gospel begins with Jesus asking a question:  “Who do people say that I am?”

Jesus has been going about the land, healing, casting out demons, and feeding large amounts of people.  It only seems right that he’d be interested in what kind of effect this ministry was having on the masses.

The disciples, Jesus’ closest advisors respond:

“Well, Jesus, they are mentioning you among the greatest that we’ve ever known.  Some say John the Baptist–you know, your cousin? who was executed by Herod recently? –they think you may be a reincarnation of him.

“Others say Elijah, that greatest of the prophets during the time of the kings.  Our ancestors say he ascended to heaven in a fiery chariot and the people think you may be him, since you are doing God’s deeds of power as he once did.”

In hearing this exchange, I couldn’t help but think of how much we humans care about what others say about us, sometimes especially those who only know us from afar. In fact, despite of the complexities of the situation straining US and Middle Eastern relations this week, in some regard, part of the problem is that we humans are all too willing to believe and act upon what others “are saying” about us. Positive or negative, what others “out there” say about us, whether it be from abroad or from the virtual distance of cyberspace, is rarely the real story. The violence engulfing the embassies today seems to stem from this kind of incomplete information, whether it be gathered from anecdote or from an obscure but suddenly internationally “important” film.

Secondhand sources, whether offering uncritical praise or simply damaging, false gossip, give us but partial pictures of our identity. This is why Jesus follows up that first question with a question of greater import.

“Who do YOU say that I am?”

It is quite a different matter to ask this question of a friend, from a trusted source, from one who has seen you at both your best and worst moments and who can look you in the eye and tell you the truth.

Peter, of course, replies–“the Messiah,” God’s anointed or, in Greek, the Christ. Even though I imagine that this was more a hopeful anticipation than an assured statement on Peter’s part (more ‘The Messiah?’ than ‘The Messiah!’), it remains the foundation of our proclamation about who we Christians believe Jesus to be.

As we celebrate this first welcome back Sunday here at St. Paul’s, I want each of you to know that our proclamation about Jesus, who we say that he is, remains important in this day and age.

We are called to announce Jesus as the Christ, and as Episcopalians, doing so boldly is not always in our comfort zone. But we must confess Jesus as Lord even yet, though we may have a different understanding of what it means to do so than our brother and sister Christians in other denominations. Who do we say Jesus is really? Do we proclaim him to be the Christ to the best of our abilities?

We here at St. Paul’s strive to be a community in which this proclamation is supported, encouraged, and experienced.

In the gospel of John, Jesus says, “I no longer call you slaves, but rather friends,” because as he says, friends know more than servants do about what is really going on with their fellow friends. Peter is first a friend of Jesus, and it is from this proximity and intimacy in which his proclamation comes forth.

The ministries and programs you will hear about in the garden later are just some of the ways in which we attempt to proclaim Christ’s messiah-ship in this city and the world, and to provide a structure for our friendship with each other, and with Christ, to grow.

But as I’m sure you must be thinking or feeling, saying the words alone is not the ultimate point of our proclamation.

We are people of meaning… searchers seeking to understand what it means to proclaim Jesus as Lord, and what consequence those words have on the way we live our lives, both individually and communally.

The second half of the Gospel today gives us a glimpse of the answer, although the answer is not an easy one.  We current followers have the benefit of knowing how the gospel ends, while Peter and the other disciples have to listen to Jesus’ words in the rest of the passage, words about “losing our lives to save them,” and trust that Jesus knows what he’s talking about.

Peter had perhaps envisioned a Messiah or Christ as a political savior, or a conquering king in the King David sense. Commentator Matt Skinner puts it this way, “By calling Jesus ‘the Christ,’ at this point in the story, Peter declares, ‘I think you’re the one who will purify our society, reestablish Israel’s supremacy among the nations, and usher in a new era of peace and holiness. I’m expecting big things from you.’”

But Jesus turns that idea of Messiah on its head and asks us to embrace a counter-intuitive gospel.

When Jesus says, “”If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me,” they aren’t just words.

We know that he is going to show us exactly what this means through his own trial, cross, and resurrection. It is no accident that from this point on in the gospel, Jesus has his face set toward Jerusalem, where his words will become action, where promise will become actuality.

At times we forget just how radical the call to follow Jesus is. Following Jesus is, as my daughter mentioned this week, “like following the leader,” but the kingdom he proclaims is so unlike any other that we know in the world.

Other kingdoms tell us that our power is found in our associations and our wealth: who we know, which family we were born into, and what we have accumulated. Jesus asks us to “Deny ourselves and follow him” and he sends his disciples out with nothing extra so that they will not be defined by anything other than the proclamation of God’s kingdom and the love that binds them.

Other kings lead their followers into battle against their enemies, conquering their foes and showing the greatness of their culture and kingdom. Jesus exposes the violence of our earthly kingdoms as utterly meaningless by going to the cross, and asks his disciples to “turn the other cheek” rather than be swept away in the never-ending cycle of tit for tat, eye for eye, tooth for tooth.

He tells us to love our enemies and shows us what that means through his passion.

Jesus’ form of Christ-hood, is not easy or attractive by the world’s usual standards. But it is the road that leads to life if we have but the courage, the tenacity, and the communal strength to follow it to the end.

When I read the comment streams on those articles that had to do with the current political unrest, I read a lot of hateful speech. I read posts that called for the death of all Muslims, or the death of all Westerners, and in the midst of it, I heard the voice of Jesus beckoning us to proclaim a kingdom in which all God’s children could be one, as Jesus and the Father are one. Not through assent to an emperor, but through the grace of another type of king.

I wonder how different our proclamation of Jesus’ lordship would be if we made sure our actions and our words were concentrated on following the example of Jesus in the way of the cross.

We certainly do not condone violence, nor do we accept the violence that issues forth from incomplete understandings of people, prophets, or proclamations.

We mourn for those who have died unjustly, and we mourn for the division that still exists in our world.

But the only way the world will be different is if we have to courage to follow Christ and live out the counter-intuitive logic of the cross in our own lives.

We may not be able to stop the misunderstandings, we may not be able to stop the elements that encourage hatred and violence, but we can respond as a community of Christians, and face the fire together.

And though following Christ inevitably leads us to the cross, though denying ourselves brings about a kind of death, we also know beyond a shadow of a doubt that the cross is not the end of the road, but just the beginning.

Resurrection, new life: these await us in the end, and are yet present to us as we follow Jesus in the way.

In the doing, in the following…the signs of the already, and not yet nature of the kingdom become evident to us. By proclaiming and being faithful followers, we help sow the seeds of the new creation in the midst of a world of death and discord.

As we embark upon this new year, I ask each of you to reinvest in following Jesus Christ as Lord.

I ask you to till the soil of your hearts and sow a seed of faith that we can help nurture together with God’s help. But I don’t want you to just say the words.

I want you to commit to following in the way of the cross, with this community as your support structure, as fellow pilgrims and friends in the journey. It is not an easy journey, but I can assure you, it is rewarding.

Pray about it this week.  If you need guidance talk to me, or another one of your fellow pilgrims upon the road.

I pray we will commit to doing what we can to build up the body, and to share the good news with each other, among friends who are close and enemies who may yet be far off. Let us discern together more fully what following Christ means and what the implications are for our daily lives. As your rector, I pledge to you that I will do my best to follow Jesus as well, and to make his saving reign known through my word and actions.

Will you pledge to follow Christ and to proclaim his reign through both word and example, even when the way is hard, the road seems hopeless, and the darkness of the cross looms in the distance?

Who do you say that Jesus is?

A violent, confused world is awaiting our response.

Romans & Edward Burne Jones

Today’s reading was the 5th chapter of St. Paul’s letter to the Romans, in which he describes his concept of the origin of sin, and the grace of God that brings justification through Christ.  Scholars much more versed than me in the intricacies of this argument have written volume upon volume about what this means, and how it works.  For my part, I could only think about the image that is captured in mosaic above our altar here at St. Paul’s, and how it participates in the discussion through its bold imagery.

Edward Burne Jones, the Pre-Raphaelite artist who conceived this mosaic, particularly cherished this work.  In early sketches, he titled it “The Tree of Forgiveness,” but later on settled on the title, “The Tree of Life.”  Writing to a friend about it, he said, “It’s a mystical thing-Christ hanging with outspread arms but not crucified: the cross is turned into a big tree all over leaves, and the stems of the tree are gold” (from Judith Rice Millon’s, St. Paul’s Within the Walls in Rome: A Building History and Guide, 1870-2000).  For a church whose patron saint is St. Paul, in the city which bears the name of his most heady and hearty Epistle, this mosaic is an extraordinary gift.

Adam and Eve, dust and life (adam and havvah in the Hebrew) flank the tree in the midst of the garden of Eden.  Instead of the snake coiled around the tree, like in Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel depiction across the river, we see Christ himself, gesturing in blessing to a redeemed humanity.  The tree of forgiveness is really the tree of life, the axis mundi, and Paul’s vision in Romans 5 of the “free gift” humanity receives in Christ is realized in image.

My favorite aspect of this mosiac is that one only sees it during the liturgical service if coming forward for communion.  The arch that holds the Annunciation obscures it until you actually get close enough to receive that gift intimately in the bread and wine.

The text from our reading today in Romans 5:17 is,

“If, because of the one man’s trespass, death exercised dominion through that one, much more surely will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness exercise dominion in life through the one man, Jesus Christ.”

I am an Episcopalian because I believe that our church is a good way to live into a life of blessing rather than cursing, of encouraging the world to receive this grace of God rather than imposing it unwillingly upon them.  The latin below this mosaic reads from John 16:33 “In the world you will have tribulation, but trust me for I have overcome the world.”  This is my daily struggle…to do what I can, with the gifts I have been given, but to finally rest in the grace and the security that the heavy lifting has already been done.  Life has triumphed, and our job as the church is to proclaim its dominion over death, live the grace of the gift out through ministry, and celebrate it fully.

May you be so blessed today my friends!