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Earthquakes and Love Vines

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The Gospel readings are timeless as they speak to deeper truths of healing, not distracted by the changes and chances of the world in the week's news. But the Gospel is also located in a certain time and space that makes the words even richer. There is power in Jesus' speaking of love in the midst of Rome’s occupation to tax collectors or wiping out adultery, knowing it is punishable by death. The same is true for us. To speak of love in the midst of the current spin on ageless injustices is powerful. It requires discipline to work and live by the axioms of love. In preaching, in liturgy, and in our common ministries, our call is to keep love as the eye in the tempests of stormy news. Nepal, Baltimore, Fayetteville, and the tiny school in Ecuador have blended together this week to open a story about the powerful natural and human constructs of this world that cause seismic shifts and landslides.

A group of 14 people who had worked with our own Susan Sluser in Nepal last year building a house had already planned to convene in Nashville this week before the first building collapsed or any hikers were trapped by the earthquake that struck last week. I remember when Susan, our beloved education director, came home from her journey, filled with joy from building a home with her new friends for a family in a village through Habitat for Humanity. They learned Friday that the house they built together stands.

Last year I accepted an invitation to preach this coming week at the Episcopal convention in Baltimore  about how love heals communities - even before the first rock was hurled in the riots in response to the death of a young black man in police custody. It feels like a gift to go into a divided city that inherited injustices and fueled the fires of division to speak of how love heals.

Months ago Don Welch chose this Sunday - before he looked at this Gospel - to be the week to celebrate the work of our community with the community of San Eduardo, Ecuador and to wear their Love Heals (el amor sana) tee shirts.

From the mountains of Nepal, to the streets of Baltimore, to the fields of Ecuador, the gospel calls us to remember that love runs deep and we are connected by one vine. What happens in other communities is felt in this community and when the vine shakes, we are called to hold on tighter.

The reading today is from the15th chapter of John and is a love letter. It is the end of the farewell discourse when Jesus is calling his community to remember that Love is the vine and that when we are cut off from it, we will wither. It’s our Sunday reminder to live by the axioms of love:

1. That love is the most powerful force.

2. That it is the oldest force.

3. That it is universal.

4. That it is less concerned with dogma, but has a dogged determination to grow.

From the first page of scripture to the last, it is written that love is the root. On the first page, it is the tree of life in the heart of Eden; on the last page that same rooted tree is described along the brook that runs through the city of God. These deep roots of love ground and connect us to groups around the world struggling and yearning for peace, for living waters, and for love. Beneath the shifting plates, more powerful than divisions that want to obviate our common humanity, higher than the human constructs of poverty, wider than the chasm created by fear is the truth of love. That is why we keep going--opening and building houses, struggling for peace and justice, and sitting by fields in Ecuador year after year building a school. It is why all of you do all the good work you do around this world. Love is the vine that runs like rebar through concrete, holding buildings together even though the ground shakes.

This week Thistle Farms traveled to Fayetteville, Arkansas to help launch a new residential community. There are now 40 sister communities and Global Partnerships scattered throughout the world working with women who have survived lives of trafficking, addiction, devastating poverty, and prostitution. We went into the women’s prison to meet women who had worked on writing their stories for months. Five actors and a blues guitar player gave a dramatic reading for about 10 guests and 90 women in yellow jumpsuits sitting in even rows of 10. The biographies were divided into themes of childhood trauma, broken families, bad decisions, the short side of the penal system, and longing for their children. The women were diverse in race, age and orientation, but connected by the bright yellow suits. The piece ended with a description of what they want for the world and in their freedom. Longing for their children, peace, good jobs, forgiveness, and hope, they are like our friends in Nepal, Ecuador, Baltimore, and there in Arkansas. At first what looked like a yellow sea of women cut off from the vine was transformed with loving words into a single vine as they stood to exit. There were no hugs as they counted off with hands held behind their backs and walked back to their cells. You could see on their prison clothes wet circles from the tears they shed for themselves, for this world, and their longing for love. I was sitting in a metal chair watching the parade and felt the only thing strong enough to hold us together, as we are shaken by the harshness in this world, is the vine.

We are one community connected by the vine. As we rebuild homes, communities, and schools, we can feel the tenderness that such love asks us ultimately to lay down our lives for each other to nurture new growth.  When we can live that tethered to the vine, nothing can tear us apart.

When we came to in the small community of San Eduardo, Ecuador this past year, you could feel a difference. After our communities here and there worked to create a clinic, opened the Hagan building, created a computer lab, built the Taylor building and opened the women’s cooperative, there has been a small shift in the ground there you can feel. This year there were display tables showing the work of the new cooking club and recycling club. This year all the gates were painted and there was more dancing. In the 18 years we have been going, there has been a shift to greater local leadership, more economic hope, and deeper relationships.  We still have a long way to journey together and there are still tons of divisions and injustices we can feel, but love is growing between us.

You already know the pain of Baltimore, the fear of Nepal, the injustice of the women in Fayetteville, and the hope of living our lives in relationship in Ecuador. This is the week to remember together in love we are all defined as simply part of the vine, growing love. We are called again to grow the vine in a field that is called community. We are called again to sewing seeds of compassion. We are called again to water and weed day after day and week after week. This is how the vine grows unshaken, deep and solid. Love can grow in the midst of challenge and controversy. It can grow through earthquakes and landslides. It can carry us through life and through death. It can withstand injustice and oppression and just grow stronger.

Wild Weeds of the Spirit

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Becca's July 20th sermon, third in a series focusing on Jesus' parables about dirt. Wild Weeds of the Spirit

Pardon me from reading a meditation this morning as a sermon. I try to share stories and this seems like a good week to do that, especially given  week’s Gospel comes from the 13th chapter of Matthew which contains 5 parables all of which are about understanding what the kingdom of God is like and how we live in it.    But the text this morning is nuanced and takes some crafting of words carefully sorted to express the meaning and lose the heart of the message of Scripture, which is to love without judgment and to believe that all is reconciled with our creator at our death.  To begin with I believe this is a parable about patience, about introspection and community.  Weeds are the result of our neglect in the cultivated gardens and the truth of wilderness.  They can be dangerous to plants we want to cultivate, but also a call to live at peace and beyond the boundaries set for us.  The hope in our reflecting for a few minutes on this text is to dig into its roots and untwist the tangle of meaning that some of us may have brushed over the top of for years. Love begets love and so there is a loving message beneath the fiery remarks that need to be uncovered beyond the distancing ourselves from the message by exegetical feats or poetic licenses.

In the wilder places of this world and in our hearts where wheat and weeds grow together there is a tangle of roots can be undone.  We can’t pull them out without doing damage to the other.  The weeds must be kept in check so as not to harm the good growth, but for all of us, it is intertwined in a way that needs some gentle sorting.  There is a story that when the Buddha first began to teach, a deity visited him and asked him a question: the inner tangle and the outer tangle---This generation is entangled in a tangle.  So I ask you, who succeeds in untangling this tangle?  The Buddha’s answer was simple and direct: the one who sits down in the middles of his or her life and looks with attention, calm and resolute has a chance to untangle the tangle and to relieve suffering.

I took this Gospel out to a wild tangle of plants on a wooded Canadian Island this week that Cathy and Martin Brown took Marcus, Tara, and I to… I took it into the wild place where mosquitos and tics multiply, where moss is thick carpet and where blueberries thrive.  It is great setting to reflect on this scripture as someone who cherishes the blessed place of weeds as a devotee of thistles, chickweed and lupine.  All of us see the value and gift of cultivated fields, of respecting the work of disciplined disciples, but we can all marvel as well at stunning places in this world and in our hearts that have not been pruned and judged.  There is the gift of weeds in our lives whether from neglect that offers us change, wandering into the unknown, or understanding their presence that is humbling and valuable to a rich spiritual life.

As I sat among the weeds in the woods of pines and birch, above all I am reminded that there is something especially sweet about finding wild blueberries in the summer.  Its like finding money on the sidewalk or seeing a the first firefly of spring. Its actually better because along with the surprise of the find there is the instant sense of being a naturalist; that you can feast with just the findings in the woods and provide for family and friends. The blended color is a rich matte of purple and pinks. There are things like deer flies that keep you on your toes, but the joy of a handful of blue berries on a sunny afternoon hike surpasses the irritation of a few bugs or the trepidation of the siting of a garter snake. A handful of blueberries is a fore taste to a heavenly banquet.  You can’t help but say grace when you pop them in your mouth and taste real sweetness with a hint of a tartness to remind you of the wildness of this world. Blueberries thrive among the weeds.  The weeds grow freely in the wooded landscape and serve as ground cover and food for uncultivated animals that eat whatever is available and rarely distinguish between weed and plant.

It feels like Eden to sit in such a setting where rocks call you to deep quiet and loons call you to deep listening.  It is from such a place as Eden that we remember the first weeds grew, but in such an idealic place there are no words for weeds in Eden as everything grew together, blueberries and chick weed as they lived in harmony so both could prosper.  Weeds were named by us and called out for their invasive nature, their particular barbs and their desire to take over a plot of land.  They are labeled as weeds and then torn out and dismantled so that other plants can prosper whether through the sweat of our brow or chemical warfare. But weeds protect as well as harm and hold many healing qualities within their leaves and flowers.  There is a reason that wild blueberries are tucked among the wild weeds that protect them from insects and provide shielding against harsh winds.

I have long held the view that if there were no weeds in the vision of the beginning of creation, in the fullness of time where the kingdom of love is poured out, there will no longer be weeds again.  In this kingdom of love which is a vision as beautiful as the northern woods and eden itself, we will have felt how the healing presence lives in all things and will have removed the labels in a lush wild field that has a river of life flowing through it. The weeds will have become part of the tangle in vision where weed and blueberries live as one.

In this section of Matthew, Jesus is walking through cities wild with oppression in an occupied land where he is witnessing the institutional sins of slavery and poverty that are yoked and the desire for power religiously, politically and socially. He is knee deep in the weeds.  He reminds us in story and action that faith offers us surprising reversals and compassion in the unfolding story, where people are astounded by God’s generosity and forgiveness.  No tradition was to sacred to be questioned, no authority was too great to be contradicted and no assumption should be left unchallenged.  Do not judge, lest you be judged is his call in the 7th chapter of this same gospel.

In those weeds he hears the psalmist’s song this morning, “There is no where to flee from God’s loving presence, whether I take the wings of the morning or dwell in the uttermost part of the sea.  He knows the Story of Jacob, that the very ground we wrestle and walk upon is sacred if we listen to our dreams and visions.   God is a God of mercy and love Jesus preaches in a thousand different ways to anyone who has ears. It is all part of the truth that love is woven into the fabric of the whole world.  His compassion and zeal for the weeds of the world can hardly be contained as he restores health and life There is nothing that we need to condemn and no one we need to leave behind.  We cannot forsake those who are mourning and in prison.  We cannot abandon anyone who we have deemed a weed, whether it is roman occupiers, lepers, prostitutes, tax collectors, a women hemorrhaging, rebels protesting, or a wandering rabbi preaching radical love.  All of us get to grow in the field of the kingdom together and we are not to judge.  God will sort it out.  The weed and wheat remind us to deal honestly with our own motivations.  We need to take our inner life as seriously as we do the outer life.  I can imagine the hearers of this parable all identify someone else as the weed, they are the sweet blueberries. This parable reminds us that we too are part weed and that It is by God’s grace that we get to live in this field, keep our own weeds in check and continue to nurture the wheat and blueberries that thrive as we untangle our hearts.   The Holy Spirit draws the whole creation into unity and speaks through weed, wheat and wild blueberry.  We as a faithful people stand in solidarity with them all and see them all as part of a communion we encounter with a holy and life giving creator. Thank God the call is for patience in the field and mercy in our lives.  We have more untangling to do to thrive in the kingdom of love.

Hope Rises with the Sun, Easter 2014

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[audio mp3="http://www.beccastevens.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/Easter-Service-for-blog.mp3"][/audio] I starting walking before the sun rose on a smooth beach where yesterday’s footprints were erased by an eternal tide that gracefully lives in the moment. In real time that rushes to grow children and deepen lines of worry, there was a pause. There was no question which direction to walk; its an instinct to turn towards the east where love is painted in lavender on a bluing canvas.

Sunrise starts before dawn. It was probably just a slight change in tone that called Mary Magdalene to head to the garden. The story of the Resurrection begins with the words, “while it was still dark”. The light had not yet risen on Jerusalem on the Sabbath as Mary heads out with grief as her guide to carry her to the body. Light transformed from grey to pink like water to wine is enough for her to see the stone rolled away and to run to Peter and John.  As they run back to the tomb in a race with the murky light of dawn, they see enough to know Jesus is gone.  Mary stands alone as the light breaks through and she sees angels and linen on the floor. Even though she cannot make out what she is seeing, she hears Jesus calling her. Then the light of hope fills her from within, and she reaches for Jesus.

Its hard to hope for resurrection, especially after crossing through wildernesses bruised by thorns that caught us on the way.  The wake of death casts a huge pall over dawns, and on those mornings, sunrise is a surprise, no matter how long we have waited and hoped.  I can imagine Mary’s surprise as the sunrise poured light into the tomb and hope caught her unexpectedly.  We all carry grief to the tombs of those we love. After the unexpected deaths this year in the community of St. Augustine’s of Lisa Froeb and Bob Feldman, whom we buried a day apart, I found myself this lent sitting in the chapel before work with their ashes that rest in the altar. On those mornings, as the light seeps into the chapel in unadulterated beams of white, I have felt hope rise with the sun.  Sunrise in the story of Easter is not just a time of day; it is a state of the heart.  Sunrise is the space where nighttime fears move aside for hope, where we feel peace about our mortality in the scope of the universal truth that love abides and where we feel light crest the dark horizons of hearts we have kept walled.

There was an eight hundred year old marbled Cathedral with beans of light filtering through stained glass in the early morning that our group from St. Augustine’s visited in the mountains of Ecuador last month. At the altar dedicated to Magdalene, there were a group of indigenous women chanting prayers that carried this sunrise story of deep grief and unbounded hope with a melody through the rose-colored air. Several of us hovered near to catch a ray of that love story as we lit candles, wept for Lisa and Bob, and felt hope rising in the truth that for thousands of years grieving hearts can sing.

Last week as the sun was rising I received an email from Rev. Canon Gideon in Uganda. He is the founder of an organization that works with children and families who are HIV positive and runs a school and wants to begin a social enterprise for women this summer. He wrote about speaking with donors from the World Bank asking them for continued financial support even after Uganda’s harsh legislation against gay and lesbians that threatens not just their safety, but of all the people who support and preach love without judgment. He is leading like a bright light with courage and a prophetic voice as a witness to justice and freedom for all people. The sun rises all over the world, all day long. And when we get a glimpse of its brightness, it is so beautiful it makes me weep.

When the orange globe peeks above the horizon in bursts of resurrection each morning, the moon takes a sweet bow. As we turn towards home under the rising yellow force, or leave a chapel holding friends we love, or walk away humming a love song we don’t even understand the words to, or feel the courage of fellow pilgrims preaching radical love, we follow a sixty-foot shadow with an aftertaste of joy that is gratitude. We can walk like Mary Magdalene who left with the sunrise preaching, “Walk with hope in faith because love lives.”  It's not that we are more faithful than we are in the dark of night, its just that our pace is lighter.

When we follow in the footsteps of Magdalene, we can dance a jig that on this endless spinning earth, we have seen the light.  The stone has rolled and all those we love who have died live on in love and the memory of God. All we grieve is rising, like the sun did on Easter and on the very first morning. That is the hope that shines in the darkness leads us home. Sunrise calls women with grieving heart to sing, it enables priests to dream of equality in desperate times, and paints each morning in colors so tender they turn stone hearts to flesh. Sunrise means that we can live in hope, dedicated to justice and truth, knowing the light will never leave us.  The light is ours for the beholding and allows us to make our song even at our own Easter morning, “Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia.”

Christmas Pageant

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My husband, Marcus, and my son, Levi, opening the Christmas pageant at St. Augustine's Chapel. It was a beautiful morning. To watch the video, please click here.

A Little Child Shall Lead Us

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Every year we drape shiny fabric sinched with cords over children's bodies and entrust them with the Christmas drama. It is the only ritual the church leaves in their able hands. Every year in sweet perfection they tell the story of the Lord's birth before an adoring congregation who temporarily abandons all judgment, doubt and worries as God's love magically takes on flesh and blood before our eyes. Every year we swaddle a baby, momentarily called Jesus, and the baby blesses us and we allow our hearts to recall the humbling and unbelievable story of a poor virgin birth in the midst of a violent political struggle as Love becomes incarnate in this world. It is the beginning of our good news, and it makes sense that a child has to lead us in this truth. I drove away from the home of Oscar where I had offered a blessing and a prayer of thanksgiving for his life a few days ago. Oscar's mom and dad already have that exhausted and beautiful new parent look. Barely a week old he has already restructured their schedules, moved their office, cluttered their kitchen, ceased all other news, almost broken their hearts so they can widen them enough to make room for this new person, and brought family from distant lands to adore him. As I backed out of their drive on the small street just off the interstate with not a Christmas decoration in sight, the truth that a child shall lead us made its way from the recesses of my memory into the richness of living in my heart. Of course it would have to be a lamb to lay down with a lion, a sheep would be too stuck in his ways to ever believe it is possible to make peace. We have to be like the lamb to believe that a defenseless and trusting baby is the prince of peace with power to change the world. Without fanfare on holy nights babies born under starlit skies change the course of our lives forever.

"O holy night, the stars are brightly shining; It is the night of the dear Savior's birth! Long lay the world in sin and error pining, till He appeared and the soul felt its worth. A thrill of hope, the weary soul rejoices, for yonder breaks a new and glorious morn. Fall on your knees, O hear the angel voices! O night divine, O night when Christ was born!

O night, O holy night, O night divine!"

Visions of babies that can teach us how to live in peace and love can renew our hearts. There was a nine month old named Natalia, traveling with her mother on the second leg of an airplane trip who took a fancy to my husband's watch. During the course of the flight we learned the mother was Puerto Rican, had two other children, lived in New York and traveled back and forth as part of the Homeland Security Department. Over cooing and playing with watches we talked abut politics, statehood for Puerto Rico, music and religion. What we held in common was adoration for her beautiful Natalia, so all the conversation was peaceful. A little child has to be the one to move us out of our corner and into new spaces that we don't claim as our own. Babies, naked and poor, who belong more to God than to us, remind us of how we will return to our creator.

Two weeks ago in the paper there was a picture of a baby almost starved in her mother's arms. She is part of a sea of news about the starvation sweeping Zimbabwe. She is caught in the horrific economic crisis, Mugabe's corruption that mirror's Herod's, and a relentless drought. Her name is Godknows. Oh my Lord, Godknows. Godknows is God's holy child. God knows the meaning of suffering. God knows we have allowed the suffering of innocent children caught in our ambivalence, fear or hatred. God knows the suffering of babies should scatter any pride we have and make us pray for mercy. The song of Mary is for Godknows.

Oscar, Natalia, Godknows, and all our babies lead us to the truth of the good news of the Gospel. Into this broken world a child is born. This Holy Child, the incarnation of Love, can turn our hearts to flesh and bring peace. This Child can bring us to our knees in that kind of gratitude that moves us beyond our doubt into our hopes. We can believe that with our whole hearts. Our king was a poor baby born into poverty-- born to a poor mother whose faith and love led her from the stable to a cross. This child has to lead us; it is our saving grace.

"O holy night, the stars are brightly shining; It is the night of the dear Savior's birth! Long lay the world in sin and error pining, till He appeared and the soul felt its worth. A thrill of hope, the weary soul rejoices, for yonder breaks a new and glorious morn. Fall on your knees, O hear the angel voices! O night divine, O night when Christ was born!

O night, O holy night, O night divine!"

To listen to this entry, please click here.

Just Our Luck

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My son Moses and I had only three dollars left at the Tennessee State Fair a couple of months ago. We passed by the fishing game as a carnival hawker beckoned us over. He told us for only two dollars we could take a turn with his fishing pole and hook one of the hundred small paper sacks that held a plastic toy or maybe, just maybe, hook the one that held a ticket for the large stuffed animal grand prize. Moses was excited and so I gave the guy all but my last dollar. As he handed the pole to Moses he said, "Good luck." Knowing this was our one shot I asked, "And where would that luck be?" He answered by whispering to Moses, "I would try the bottom left corner." Moses picked the bag he suggested and inside was the ticket for the huge stuffed dinosaur! He cheated for us! We tipped him our last dollar and told him it was hard to fathom a stranger cheating for us. It was not fair. He was completely generous, and I still wonder how he makes a living.

There are numerous stories in the Gospel that teach us about the generosity of God and how grace comes in unfair waves, called mercy, to carry us through rough waters. There is the story of the workers in the vineyard where the people who find their way to work at the end of the day are paid the same as those that came first. It is the story of life not being fair and God being even more generous than the sweet carnival man. It is a parable, linked to other parables about laborers in the fields, the hierarchy of the disciples, the reversal of fortune in the kingdom, and the economy of salvation. These stories remind us that we need to abandon all measure of fairness and rank in the face of God's generosity. God, who rains down mercy on the just and unjust, sees the wealth of the widow's mite, feeds a multitude with a few loaves and fishes, offers us so much love it cannot be contained. It is the sacred places where justice ends and mercy picks up. We experience it when we feel the scales of fairness and justice break and tender mercies flood our path. In thanksgiving we joyfully offer mercy to everyone else.

There is a woman who is a part of Magdalene, a two year recovery community for women who have survived lives of addiction, prostitution, and violence. She was on the streets of Detroit for 40 years. One day in 2006, her son-in-law was coming to Nashville, and she asked him for a ride. She knew no one, but made her way into Magdalene. If you met her today you would describe her as sunshine. She is beautiful and full of love and praise for all people. She describes the wondrous feeling of working as a cleaner in the judges' chambers. As the judges leave in the evening she is coming in, and they wave to her and thank her. She could be angry forever by all the wrongs done to her and guilty forever for all the wrongs she did to others. She could blame her childhood, her addiction, racism, the justice system and God for leaving her in the streets. Instead she cries when she talks about how God has given her more than she could ever imagine. The Carnie worker, the woman from Magdalene and the Gospel, remind us that life is not fair, thank God. We aren't promised fairness in the Gospel, only that our life will be rich, and we will live forever. So we don't have to worry about what we will eat or drink, or gas prices, or tomorrow. All we have to do is give thanks for any time we get to show our gratitude for God's gifts by loving our neighbors.

Photo credit: The Pic Pac

“There is no fall from Grace”

Oh, the Falling girl is a sight to see, you can hold your breath, you can gasp and scream.
But it’s all an act, it’s a sweet charade, when the crowds are gone, the girl gets paid.
And I’d cry myself to sleep, I’d pray Oh, give me strength to dance the wire someday.
But all I can do is paint her beautiful pain. I see they glory like a shooting star. Fall to the base earth from the firmament. They sun sets weeping in the lowly west, Witnessing storms to come, woe and unrest. All the world’s a stage and we’re mere players.

1928 Proposed Church of England Confirmation Blessing

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The Reverend Dennis Campbell of Little Rock, AK shares in St. Augustine's services through podcasts that Dr. Melissa Wert posts. He shared this blessing with our community, and I thought I would pass it along. Its origins are from the 1928 Proposed Church of England confirmation blessing.

Go forth into the world in peace; be of good courage; hold fast that which is good; render to no one evil for evil; strengthen the fainthearted ; support the weak; help the afflicted; honour all persons; love and serve the Lord, rejoicing in the power of the Holy Spirit. And the Blessing of God Almighty, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, be upon you, and remain with you for ever. Amen.