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Easter 2018: The Peace That Passes Understanding

Easter 2018: The Peace That Passes Understanding

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb...
— John 20:1
Peace Flags at Benton Chapel for Easter 

Peace Flags at Benton Chapel for Easter 

While it was still dark, I walked into St. Augustine’s Chapel Ash Wednesday. “A Peace that Passes Understanding” was the communal reflection for the Lenten season, and so I wanted to begin Ash Wednesday in silence before the first folks arrived for ashes at 7. All of a sudden I was jolted as I heard yelling in the fellowship hall. Two young men who participate in the overnight young adult homeless program at our chapel were in an argument that was escalating quickly. Within seconds, one of the young men picked up a big baptismal bowl sitting on the altar and hurled it into the wall smashing it. Tables were overturned and chairs were launched. In the few minutes it took to separate them and regain peace, everyone in the chapel was visibly shaken. a small glimpse into what must be experienced by groups following the wake of sudden violence was opened up a crack. 

That disturbing outburst was a reminder of how fragile peace can be. It was a powerful lesson in how the violence of poverty, racism, trauma, mental health, and fear are poised to tear through any of the false walls we believe peace builds to shield us from the truth. Peace does pass our understanding. Our fragile and finite minds cannot grasp the depth and hope of peace that keeps our hearts in the knowledge and love of God. The peace that passes our understanding isn’t an idealistic quiet mountaintop setting; it is the peace in the midst of a wilderness of tables overturned in the temple, of disciples bearing crosses, and in the midst of loving in the face of violence and oppression. The peace that passes our understanding is a proclamation of faith as we strive for justice grounded in love. The peace that passes our understanding is what carries us through the wilderness with courage, humility, and direction.  

The only writing I have from my father, who was an episcopal priest and died when I was five, speaks powerfully about such a peace. The writing is simply a tiny slip of paper that fell out of his prayer book that my mom gave me at my ordination. On that piece of paper are written the words, “In the shadow of his cross may your soul find rest.” In other words, while in the midst of our struggle, may you find peace. My father’s words remind me that the great peace of Easter begins on Good Friday—in the shadow of the cross.

It was in the shadow of the cross where the disciples witness Jesus’s faith and forgiveness. There must have been a deep peace that surpassed her understanding that grounded Mary Magdalene and John to face the uncertainty, fear, and potential violence. While she was still living in the shadow of the cross that Easter morning, she was steady enough to gather the herbs and begin the journey. She headed out prepared to anoint a dead body, not because she thought he was risen. But in the face of injustice, oppression, violence, she was willing to confront the soldiers with her meager offering to anoint the body.  

The story of the Resurrection begins with the words, “While it was still dark….” The shadows of the cross were long as the sun was just rising on Jerusalem that Sabbath as Mary heads out with grief guiding her to the body. And that single act of faithfulness is enough to carry her with a peace that passes understanding to the source of love.

The peace that passes understanding leads her through despair, leads her to brush aside fear, and to hold onto love. The shadows of the Crucifixion became the grounding of a deep peace that changed the world. And that story is powerful enough to unravel all the upheaval, violence, and fear that keep us from experiencing peace. 

It sustains Mary through meeting angels and feeling the earth shake. It catches her when she falls at the feet of love resurrected. That peace is strong enough for all of that--to lead her to be the first preacher and to offer generations to proclaim peace in our own times of struggle.  

During this season, I have glimpsed at such peace that underlies the story of Easter—that peace is our deepest truth. A couple of weeks ago I spoke at a large healthcare company conference about resiliency and women’s leadership. When I finished speaking, I invited two of the powerful women graduates of Thistle Farms to join me on stage and talk about what gives them strength and how they experience healing. We were sitting on three, big oversized chairs with individual mikes like a living room. As the first graduate spoke, tears began to pour down her face. I did not know it at the time, but she was going through a difficult personal tragedy. 

To the executives and overachieving workforce, she said, “I have no words right now, but I know I need to show up and keep the faith.”  She described how in the midst of the chaos she was in, she could trust herself and the community and keep going. Her strength, her tears, her faithfulness were the living embodiment of how we can live into this deep and abiding peace. She was the truth that when we can walk and live in peace, we can have a clearer memory, more strength, and the freedom to weep. There was such grace and truth in her witness, that the executives sitting in that room wept with her. They recognized themselves in her, and she showed them how in the midst of life that can be unfair, hard, and frightening, peace can give us courage. She, like Magdalene herself, invites us to the truth of peace, the strength of peace, and the freedom of peace, even if we don’t understand it. 

Today is the day to proclaim peace as a statement of faith. We don’t have to wait for the mountaintop. We can proclaim it in the valley. We don’t have to wait to proclaim it in the courtroom. We can proclaim it on the streets. We don’t have to wait until the paths are straight. We can proclaim meandering it in the desert.  

That peace, offered by the Prince of Peace, even in the face of trauma, broken hearts, and shattered baptismal bowls, is enough to keep us going. We are sons and daughters of peace. Peace has been etched on prayer cloths for centuries across the world and in our hearts. We are surrounded by peace and given it as the first sign of the Holy Spirit who breathes it into us. That is the ancient hope that carries us to love. The Easter story preaches to each of us that when we keep believing in peace, it carries us beyond grief. The stone has rolled, the shroud has fallen and we are free. We can proclaim peace with all those we love who have died and live on in love and the memory of God. Peace carries us through the wilderness to the garden. All we grieve is still a part of us and all our hopes are not in vain. It’s not hard to imagine Magdalene, graduates of Thistle Farms, you, me, or a young man that smashes a primal element in the sanctuary—searching for peace with such longing that we search for life in a tomb.  With just a glimpse of love’s fragile truth we can proclaim peace in the shadow of our crosses and live into the hope fashioned on the first morning of creation. We can be at peace in the truth that love lives. Such deep peace allows us to make our song at our own Easter morning, “Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia.”

"Be Quiet So That I Can Hear:" A Sermon on Silence

"Be Quiet So That I Can Hear:" A Sermon on Silence

aziz-acharki-292702.jpg

Deuteronomy 18: 15-20

Mark 1:21-28

I know it’s important to know when to be quiet. One time when one of my kids was little and had done something horrible, I was explaining in detail why he was in trouble. He finally turned and said to me, “Be quiet so I can hear.” It is true for all of us who have had the gift of parenting that kids are really the best teachers in the world. He was saying, “Be silent. I want to hear what is going on in me. I want to know how to grow and how to do what I need to do.”

The lesson from Deuteronomy is to learn to be silent. The lesson from Mark is that in the midst of a busy Sabbath day in Capernaum the vortex of chaos is thriving. Everything starts spinning out of control. There is so much noise and someone in the front of the temple is spouting nonsense. People must have been thinking—be quiet so we can hear. Jesus knows it is both the demons within and without in this world and it is not of God.

He does his healing work by saying, “Be silent.” For the love of God, be silent. And with those simple words, healing began. Jesus spends the rest of his day healing anyone he can through both words and deeds—Peter’s mom, people coming through the door in the evening. Then he goes to a lonely place to be quiet. This busy day ends with his going to a lonely, deserted place.

Why? So, he can hear again.

And so, it is that preachers have been trying to figure out how to preach on silence. St Francis preached that the best deeds, the best preaching of love, is done not in words, but in the way we are together.

I want to share two vignettes about how I have been preached to—not in words:

Several years ago, one of the women from Thistle Farms went with me to Texas to share her story of healing and hope in the community of Thistle Farms. She, like most of the women, was abused early on and hit the streets at a young age. One of the joys of getting to do this work is being on a woman’s first trip, the first time a woman sees the top side of the clouds, the first time she goes into a community and says, “Guess what? Women heal and women recover. It works.” It is exciting and wonderful. This particular woman started on the plane ha getting knots in her stomach, thinking her words are not going to be sufficient. She started editing. She missed dinner that night at the hotel. I think I heard her read her version of her story three or four times.

The next morning, she got up and said, “I rewrote it and I want you to hear it again.” I was like, “Dear God. It’s beautiful, you’re amazing, it’s perfect, you’re great. The words are awesome.” But she became more nervous. When we arrived at the community where she was to speak, I got up and I said, “This is making me nervous. I think it will go much better for her and for us if we just go ahead, cut to the chase, and give her a standing ovation now.”

She stood up, then everyone stood up with her and started applauding. She started weeping, we all started crying, and it was a big love fest without any words. The words were so much less important than her witness, standing up there being able to say, “Here I am.” And that people could love her.

Two weeks ago, my husband and I had the privilege of being theologians-in-residence at Episcopal High School.  Whenever I go to a high school, specifically part of the story I tell is my own story of sexual abuse that started in the church, and I think it’s an important story. I don’t go into detail. I talk about there is healing and that part of the power of sexual assault has to do with silence.

As communities, we need to hear the stories well. We need to be there for each other. When people are little, they don’t have those words, but as they get into high school, they learn those words for their own bodies and their own lives and how to begin to speak that with power. So, I told my story and that night one of the chaplains said, “It was really powerful what you did today and what you said was beautiful. How did you heal from all that?” I said healing was a process, and that I had a lot of sickness still in me when I started Thistle Farms/Magdalene, and it was kind of hard. That I would get triggered a lot and I knew I had to go back to confront my abuser and to go to a therapist. He asked, “What was that like?” And I told the story of going back to my abuser.

I looked over and my husband, to whom I have been married for 30 years, was crying. I don’t know if you know what that is like. To know that you have been with someone for 30 years and they can weep for you, but it is very humbling. He could not have preached love more powerfully.

Think about all the times in your life when someone finally said, “Be silent” and you were able to find the gift of silence. Stop all the noise, the senseless demons within and without us in this world and feel feelings –whether someone clapped for you or somebody wept with you, or maybe it was that you finally just took a breath and allowed the spirit to speak. This is a busy day. There is a lot of noise in our world, and there are a lot of people chattering away.

So, if you take anything away from this—take this: speak the words of God when you need to. Preach through your deeds. And every now and then, for the love of God, be silent.

Sermon: Easter 2017 –The Sacred Thread

Sermon: Easter 2017 –The Sacred Thread

An image of a woman weaving in Thistle Farms'  new social enterprise

An image of a woman weaving in Thistle Farms' new social enterprise

As dawn was breaking on an Early April morning, I was sitting near the windows at the Chapel weaving some of the 1000s of prayer ribbons created by the community of St. Augustine’s. We committed to spend this lent writing prayers on ribbons to hold our thoughts, the names of those we love, the history of our dead and what we long for. For six weeks, acolytes processed torches bearing thistle farms candles tied with our handwritten prayers. As I was weaving, I read the prayers slowly for all sorts and conditions of humanity penned with love. It’s beautiful watching how a single word woven with other words allows a community to pray for the whole world.  It occurred to me how weaving and praying are in communion.  As I picked up a ribbon, I was praying with the child who wrote simply, “my mom." 

I was praying for peace as I read the names of the worn-torn places scrawled onto ribbons interwoven with prayers for strength. As the light grew brighter the weaving was coming to life in the secret hours of the morning. Prayer feels hallowed when our hands do the work so our minds settle to see the sacred threads each day offers.  In such moments we  feel the blessedness that we have woven from the love, longing, and life we have made.

I remember the holy weaving that depicted the resurrected Jesus with a bright green background surrounded by images of the four gospels.  It was a three story high tapestry made by one of the official World War 2 artists, Graham Sutherland. It hung behind the altar in Coventry Cathedral, erected to bring reconciliation after the war dropped a bomb on the original cathedral. During a summer in my early twenties I gave tours in that sanctuary and learned about the amazing tapestry woven by French women who worked 11 years to bring the image to life.  The tapestry took the place of the usual high altar carvings or windows to invoke wonder not just for the image itself, but for the way single strands coming together offer a glimpse of heaven. 

There must have been a thread of hope to lead Mary Magdalene and the other Mary in the story of Matthew to face the soldiers on Easter Morning. The story of the Resurrection begins with the words, “while it was still dark." The light has not yet risen on Jerusalem on the Sabbath as Mary heads out with grief as her guide to carry her to the body.  And that single sacred thread is enough to weave together the love story. Such a thread was enough to lead her through despair, to brush aside fear, and to hold onto love.

That thread of hope after Jesus’s crucifixion became the beginning of a story that changed the world. And that story is powerful enough to unravel all the shame and fear that keep us from experiencing hope. It sustained Mary through meeting angels and feeling the earth shake and catches her when she fell at the feet of love resurrected.  That first fragile thread was strong enough for all of that and to lead her to be the first preacher, to offer those threads for generations to proclaim love as the most powerful force that still ties us together.  We still sing of those threads even as we face death: Blessed Be the Tie That Binds, May God Be With You Till We Meet Again.

It makes sense to be drawn to weaving in the face of the despair, such as experienced by survivors of war who have fled Syria and have nothing when they land at beaches in Greece except a few items and a life vest.  And so for months Thistle Farms under the direction of Abi Hewitt made plans with Luma Muflah from Fugees Family, Ann Holtz from Awakening Soul, Rev. Frannie Kieschnick A Thistle Farms Board Member and visionary, and I Am You to begin the first social enterprise in Ritsona with a group of women to weave the life vests into welcome mats. 

Last Sunday, Tara Armistead, Cathy Brown, Ryan Camp, Regina Mullins, Luma, Frannie, Ann and I flew to Greece, none of us sure if the fragile first threads from those vests would be enough.  We didn’t know what we would be confronting and if weaving with the women was going to be possible.  The luggage holding the spools of thread and the shuttles had been lost.  The not for profits who ran the camp were unsure about where to weave and how to help manage a social enterprise that would pay women to weave. It is hard enough to start a business, but to start in the midst of a setting where people walk slowly because there isn’t anywhere to go, where lines of identical boxes form a quarter acre of densely populated sects in the middle of an abandoned and dusty military base, where language barriers flourish, and where lines look like snakes and people in charge have massive key rings, is really difficult. 

But on the second day as the sun was climbing on a clear blue Greece spring morning, new weavers and the group from thistle farms gathered in our first circle to welcome one another. One by one the women from the Ritsona camp shared their hopes to help the community, to remember how their ancestors in the middle east wove, to have purpose and meaning, and to help their children. Once they started talking I knew the thread of hope would be enough.  That circle is a circle we know.  We have seen that circle a thousand times; in the hills of Rwanda and the farmlands of Ecuador and right down the street on Charlotte Avenue in our Thistle Farms Circle.  

That circle binds us, even if it is in the face of trauma, broken hearts and inadequate space, and it is enough to start wharfing a loom and weave vests and scraps of cloth. Soon Arabic conversations filled the weaving room as the shuttles from the two looms called out a powerful rhythm.  That beating of threads together on big looms became more powerful than all the other issues, and the mantra for the week became simply, “no matter what, keep weaving." 

Thread by thread we tore and bound the vests that had traumatized so many.  They spoke about the cost of those vests as they ripped them into strips and talked all day about whatever came up. When the first mat came off the loom everyone cheered.  There are another 1000 mats to go. We are committed to helping make this business work since less than .01% of any of the refugee families there will be invited to immigrate.  And while the women of the camp may have fled war, they cannot flee the violence of poverty.  That single thread, woven into a single mat and laid on our altar, is enough to build a community. 

And It has always been that way. 

Like a first ribbon tied, like a thread from a tapestry woven from the ashes of war, or even like a string from a discarded life vest, we are holding on to an ancient hope that binds us together in love. And the Easter story preaches to each of us that when we take hold of that thread, hope can pull us beyond grief itself. The stone has rolled, shroud has fallen and we are free. We are tied to all those we love who have died and live on in love and the memory of God. It binds the wilderness of lent to the garden in Jerusalem in a single band of love. All we grieve is still a part of us and all our hopes are not in vain.

It's not hard to imagine the Magdalene and the other Mary running to the disciples, starting to weave the story together. The meaning still fragile and not accepted easily.  But, Magdalene picks up the the pace as she cannot contain the hope and needs to share it. Let us weave our prayers into the hope fashioned into the first morning of creation. A single thread is enough to bind us to the Easter story.  No Matter What, Keep Weaving.  It means we can live in hope, dedicated to justice and truth, knowing we are connected to all that is love.  The thread is ours for the beholding and allows us to make our song even at our own Easter morning, “Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia.”

Read more about The Welcome Project here

Sermon: The Ethic of Love

Sermon: The Ethic of Love

Image Credit: Pixabay

Image Credit: Pixabay

The Ethic of Love: The Sermon on the Mount

The Sermon on the Mount has been discussed by numerous theologians throughout the ages. Many have interpreted the teachings as law, making this reading some of the harshest words Jesus ever spoke to his gathered community of wayward fishermen, dispossessed people, and searching souls. The sermon is generally thought to be gathered isolated sayings from the early church communities. Each is a summary of something, like an original sermon of Jesus or the essence of a piece of his teachings, that could have taken the form of a question and answer. Joachim Jeremias, a German theologian in the 20th century, wrote that when the Sermon on the Mount is read as certain scholars have defined it as law, three understandings follow:               

1. A Perfectionist ethic: Jesus is a Teacher of the Law who tells his disciples what is required of them—perfection. He says he has come not to destroy the law as old vs new prescription is contrasted. You have heard it said, but I say....” He is giving the disciples a clear directive of the will of God.               

2. An Impossible ethic: Jesus is the Preacher of Repentance. When Jesus makes such unattainable demands, we know we cannot reach perfection, so despair at our own efforts sets in. Then guilt awakens in us a consciousness of sin, leading us to repentance and the possibility of mercy.           

3. An Interim-ethic: Jesus is the Apocalyptic Prophet. Jesus was preaching to men who knew they were living in a time of crisis, that there was not much time left. It was a time to love your enemies. Pull yourselves together and live a death-bed lifestyle.              

Joachim questions whether Jesus was any of these. He concludes that we are called to read the Sermon on the Mount not as law, but as Gospel. Another theologian of the 20th century Howard Thurman who was a peace activist and mystic, wrote about the Sermon on the Mount as Gospel. He was one of the fathers of the Civil Rights Movement, who influenced Dr. King so much that he carried Thurman’s book, Jesus and the Disinherited, with him in his brief case. It was Thurman who wrote in the 1940s in the South under the oppression of Jim Crow that when we read the Sermon on the Mount as Gospel and live it out, “We are free at last.” The Sermon on the Mount explains an ethic of love that calls us to radical freedom. In an ethic of love, Jesus is the embodiment of the Sermon in deeds. As long as we see it as a legal prescription, something we have to live out as an obligation, we become slaves to it. But living into an ethic of love, we glimpse at the miracle of the haunting words, Don't worry about what you are to eat or what you are to wear, Take neither walking stick nor traveling bag, “Love your enemies,” Do not return evil for evil, Proclaim good news to the poor.              

When Thurman describes this ethic of love, he begins by talking about loving people where there are rifts in our own world—the people we are close to in our circle. But then he talks about rifts in a separated world. These are the “others” and it is where people live in fear, shame, anger, and cynicism. For example, how the people on the hillside listening to Jesus might feel towards the tax collectors, their oppressors. This ethic of love does not ask us to condone the act, but the act does not cause us not to love. It’s not condemning the enemies’ actions; it is penetrating their thickest resistance so that we can all lay bare our interior walls and get to the heart. This person or group of people you consider an enemy is what holds you back from the altar and this person or group still belongs to God. When we awaken this gospel understanding in us and in our former enemies, change is possible. We all know that enemies of religious or political nature, can derail any of us. But politics are not our religion. Take Rome, for example, from the perspective of the occupied people in Jerusalem. Jesus lifted individuals out of that general classification and saw them face to face as equals—willing to teach, heal, and comfort them. It doesn’t mean there is not accountability, resistance, or that it doesn’t come at a great cost to the individuals stepping out of their bounds. But it means we change the balance of love in the world in the most powerful and poetic way. It means we reexamine our own prejudices and live as freely as possible with this guiding gospel.              

This week I spent 4 days in LA as part of the CNN Heroes Award given to Thistle Farms. We were there to learn more about running not-for- profits and hear from the other nine groups that also won the award. CNN touts this award as ordinary people doing extraordinary things. As I sat and listened in light of this Gospel, I heard stories of communities wounded and underserved and realized the award should really be about extraordinary people who do ordinary things. I heard the story told by Luma Mufleh who began her talk with, “I am an immigrant, a Muslim, a lesbian, and I serve refugees. I guess you could say I hit the jackpot.” Luma founded the Fugees Family. The Fugees Academy (6- 12 graders) she heads has a very successful football (soccer) team. She told the story to a tear-filled circle of friends about an extraordinary thirteen-year old who was a refugee from the Congo. He had witnessed the death of his father, the rape of his mother, and experienced the hard journey refugees make to our country. Luma described this young man’s anger and how he hit another player on the field. She ran out onto the field and was herself struck. She then embraced the young boy and held her hand over his heart and kept repeating in Arabic, breathe. He placed his hand over her hand, so they were both holding his heart as he began to calm down. Slowly and surely over the next several years, he began the journey from woundedness and anger towards a world of enemies into becoming a passionate student and healer who has gone on to earn a full scholarship to college. It all began simply by holding his heart in an ethic of fearless love. 

We all heard other stories of extraordinary people doing ordinary things: a young cancer survivor taking a kayak ride, a foster youth who aged out of a system and got his own apartment, a child with cerebral palsy riding a horse, a survivor of trafficking, prostitution, and addiction taking her first cruise, and a young man from public housing learning to ride a bike. Extraordinary people doing ordinary things not because they followed laws, but because they were casted out and then loved. An ethic of love can overcome any barriers, any divisions as we live out this Gospel in fellowship. Every time we walk out onto a field, take a hit, and then put our hand over a heart in response, every time we step out in love, every time we forgive what we once thought was unforgivable, every time we love an enemy, we are extraordinary and doing the most ordinary thing we were created to do… love. Love. Love.              

What is it that still makes you read this Gospel as a perfectionist law we can never attain? What is it that you think you cannot forgive? Who is the enemy who prevents you from loving? That is a good place to feel the freedom embedded in these strange and compelling words. We hear these words, and then step out into a pretty harsh and scary world and remember the common worth and value of every single person we meet, in our circle and beyond our circle. The calling of this Gospel is not to condemn, but to free us.