A Sermon for the Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

First, it’s good to be back with you, people of St. Mary’s — I met many of you when I preached here last summer and a few more of you during the Lenten evening series which David invited me to help lead. Everyone says it’s an honor to be invited to preach somewhere, and that’s true. But as someone pointed out to me, if you think about it, the real honor is when a church, having heard you preach, invites you back! So, it truly is an honor to be here this morning with you. I do hope you all realize how fortunate you are to have David and Kilpy as your clergy. Even though I now serve as the Upper School Chaplain at St. Christopher’s, I was in parish ministry for 28 years, of 26 of them in this diocese, and so I got to know a lot of clergy, and truly, you have two of the very best.

Years ago, the author Glennon Doyle wrote a blog piece that became one of her most-read posts. That day, she had posted a picture of herself in her kitchen, and almost immediately, she started getting advice from readers on how to update her kitchen — people pointing out and even sending pictures of how her kitchen could look if she only put a little money and effort into it. She said she had always loved her kitchen, but after seeing the pictures people sent her, she found herself looking at her kitchen through new, critical eyes. “Maybe it is all wrong,” she wrote, “maybe the 1980’s counters, laminate cabinets, mismatched appliances and clutter really were mistakes I should try to fix. . . I stood and stared and suddenly my kitchen looked shabby and lazy to me. I wondered if that meant I was shabby and lazy, too. Because our kitchens are nothing if not reflections of us, right?”

So, she decided that the next day, she’d make some calls about updates. “But as I lay down to sleep,” she wrote, “I remembered this passage from Thoreau’s Walden: “I say beware of all enterprises that require new clothes and not a new wearer of the clothes.”

“Walden reminds me that when I feel lacking, I don’t need new things, I need new eyes with which to see the things I already have.” So, she said, when she woke up the next morning, she walked into her kitchen “wearing fresh perspectacles.” Posting photos of each thing she was writing about she wrote, “You guys. I have a REFRIGERATOR. This thing MAGICALLY MAKES FOOD COLD. I’m pretty sure in the olden days, frontierswomen had to drink warm Diet Coke. Sweet Jesus. Thank you, precious kitchen. Inside my refrigerator is FOOD. Healthy food that so many parents would give anything to be able to feed their children. Almost 16,000 mama’s babies die every day from malnutrition. Not mine. When this food runs out, I’ll just jump in my car to get more. It’s ludicrous, really. It’s like my family hits the lottery every freaking morning.

“THIS CRAZY THING IS A WATER FAUCET. I pull this lever and CLEAN WATER POURS OUT EVERY TIME, DAY OR NIGHT. 780 million people worldwide (one in nine) lack access to clean water. Mamas everywhere spend their entire day walking miles to and from wells just for a single bucket of this- and I have it right here at my fingertips. I’m almost embarrassed to say that we also have one of these in each of our two bathrooms, and one in the front yard with which to WASH OUR FEET. We use clean drinking water to WASH OUR FEET. Holy bounty.
“This is the magical box in which I put uncooked stuff, push some buttons, and then a minute later pullout cooked stuff. It is like the JETSONS up in here.”
And so, she said, instead of feeling lacking, she decided to feel grateful. “I will look at my home and my people and my body and say: THANK YOU. THANK YOU, THANK YOU, THANK YOU. THIS IS ALL MORE THAN GOOD ENOUGH, ALL OF IT. Now. Let us turn our focus onward and outward. There is WORK TO BE DONE and JOY TO BE HAD.”

The point of my sermon today is quite simple: just as generosity comes from gratitude – our own feelings of being blessed — mercy and compassion come from forgiveness – our own feeling of being forgiven. In other words: in order to exhale generosity, we need to inhale gratitude. And in order to exhale mercy and compassion, we need to inhale forgiveness.
In today’s Gospel, we see that Peter, like most of us, approached Jesus with a shortage mentality. Peter wanted to know what the limits, the outer bounds, of forgiveness are.
“How often do I need to forgive someone, Jesus? As many as seven times?” he asks. “Not seven, but seventy-seven,” Jesus answers. And what’s interesting is that the Greek that is translated “seventy-seven” can also be translated seventy-times-seven. So, when Peter says, “do I really have to forgive seven times,” Jesus says no, 77 or 490 times!

The point is, especially as we get into the parable, we aren’t supposed to do the math. No, the point of course is to get away from that mentality altogether: that mentality of scorekeeping.
You see, Peter wanted to keep score. Now in some areas of life, it makes sense to keep score. Tennis, and baseball, for example. But there are huge areas in life where scorekeeping does not make sense. Where it is destructive, even. One of the fastest ways to ruin a friendship is to start keeping score: Who called who last, who paid for coffee last time? In marriage, scorekeeping is not a good idea. Who took the recycling out or initiated affection or changed the oil or balanced the checkbook last time?

And – as today’s lesson demonstrates – scorekeeping and forgiveness are incompatible. When Peter asks Jesus how many times he must forgive someone who has sinned against him, and
he is looking for a finite number, an outer limit, as a response, Jesus instead tells him that forgiveness is beyond calculating, beyond scorekeeping. To reinforce the point, Jesus tells a story, a story of a king who summons a man who owes him 10,000 talents.
● One talent is around 15 years’ wages for a common worker…and so 10,000 talents is 150,000 years’ wages.
● If someone makes $40,000 a year, one talent is $600,000, and $600,000 times 10,000 is 6 billion dollars.
● 6 billion… if you wanted to repay that in one year, you’d have to make over 16 million dollars a day, every day.
So, it’s deliberately a huge, exaggerated amount, making the point that it is impossible to repay. The man who is forgiven this amount falls to his knees before the king and pleads with him, “have mercy on me, and I will repay you everything!” Again, Jesus’ original listeners would have realized that’s impossible, so it is all the more poignant when he says that. And it is all the more remarkable when the king not only pardons him from imprisonment but forgives the debt!

Can you imagine the gratitude this man would have – should have – felt? But something goes wrong here…he’s not filled with gratitude. Because the second he walks out of his master’s presence, he runs into someone who owes him a hundred denarii, with a denarii being a day’s wage, at minimum wage, we’re talking a little over $6,000, not a trivial amount, but – here’s the important point – a relatively small amount, an amount that could, in fact, over time, be paid back.

But instead of looking at this person who owes HIM money and thinking “there but for the grace of God go I” – or better yet, “there go I,” and returning the favor he had just been granted, he grabs the poor guy by the throat and says, “pay back what you owe me!” When that man falls to his knees and say, “have pity on me, and I will repay everything,” he doesn’t recognize his own words and he has no sympathy… he throws the man in jail.

Here’s what Christianity believes: When God went to settle accounts with humanity, Jesus said, “have pity on them, and I will repay everything.” Part of what God was doing in Jesus Christ – a major part of what God was doing in Jesus – was “paying the debt” incurred by the debt of original sin, a debt we all, by the very fact that we are human beings, contribute to. That’s what redemption means. It means to pay a price to secure the release of something, or someone. So, when we say that Christ is our redeemer, we mean that Christ paid the price, wiped out the debt, eliminated the deficit that stands between humanity and God. The question is, do you believe that in more than general terms? Do you believe that personally? Do you believe that whatever stands between you and God has already been taken onto the cross, down to the grave, and up into heaven?

Because the key to this whole story is the attitude of that first slave upon leaving his Lord’s presence… and we are that servant. Having received pity, having received mercy, having tasted freedom from debt, reconciliation not because of anything he had done, or we have done (and in fact in spite of what he’d done, or we are doing), but having received mercy from God simply because God is merciful, what is his attitude?

–having received mercy from God simply because God is merciful, what is OUR attitude? –
–having received mercy from God simply because God is merciful, what is YOUR attitude?
Do you fully, deeply feel God’s tenderness, love, and compassion for you? Do you fully, deeply feel God’s UN-conditional love?
Have you ever really allowed yourself to feel forgiven? — again, not because you’ve managed to work yourself up into a sufficient state of sorrow or repentance – (the debt is too large, we can never repay it) – but to stand before God exactly the way you are and to hear God say, “forgiven.”
Forgiven. Forgiven!
To the degree you can feel that — to the degree you have absorbed God’s love and compassion and grace toward you — is the degree to which you will be able to look at someone who owes you – someone who is indebted to you – someone who has sinned against you – and say “oh my gosh, please don’t worry about it, I forgive you. Not seven times, but seventy times seven…even 490 times would be nothing compared to the debt that has been paid for me…I’m grateful for all I’ve been given, I HAVE NEW PERSPECTACLES — when it comes to how much grace
I’ve received, I’ve hit the lottery — so here, have some of what I’ve been blessed with… here, please, have some of what I’ve been given, because there is plenty of grace, compassion, and forgiveness to go around.

The Rev. John Ohmer, Upper School Chaplain, St. Christopher’s School

A Sermon for the Fifteenth Sunday after Penetecost

So, today is a great day in the life of this parish. At St. Mary’s Church we call today Kick-off Sunday. It is not an official feast day in the liturgical calendar, but it might as well be. It’s a day that sort of reminds me of old cowboy movies where some old hand rings the dinner bell to call everyone in for dinner from wherever in the world they all are. So from wherever in the world we all are, we’re here now to resume the regular round of our worshiping life after a summer lull. A lull that I should say never really quite happened. All through the summer, I kept expecting the numbers of us who came on Sundays to fall off. But that never really happened. Still, today our parish as a whole is sharing a little ‘come home to Jesus’ moment of getting it together to get here for a fresh start to the fall, a fresh start to life. There are children to get up and dressed. There are older bones and joints to coax into cooperating and getting us here on time. And there’s just the simple practice of getting back into the habit of being in church on Sunday. Our world has changed so much in such a short time and there’s a whole multitude of us trying to make sense of it all.

I’ve stood at the back of this church on Sunday morning as everyone is getting their selves in here just before the organ sounds the processional hymn and thought, ‘look at all these people, Lord. Your people. All these lives going on out there. What has brought them here. What’s happening in their lives that has landed them here. I wonder, what are they looking for? Hoping for?’

I suppose there are lots of reasons why you’re here. And I also think there’s only one reason. Because the One who made you, who knew you before the foundations of the earth, has been seeking you. And somehow, some way, your soul caught wind of that. And you’re here, maybe on a wing and a prayer. Maybe you’re here with a renewed longing for God. But whatever it is, it’s enough, thanks be to God!

Though after hearing the Gospel reading just now, you might be having second thoughts about showing up here this morning. Or at least that’s what occurred to me as I read through this passage a couple of weeks ago. Reading the commentators didn’t help much. One of them headed what they wrote ‘Church Discipline’. Well, oh joy! Aren’t you glad you got here for that?! Still, to put it frankly, we human beings are just a mess. Maybe a little direction wouldn’t hurt.

One of my mentors, Michael Rowell, a very wise, hilarious, super healthy Episcopal priest told me about a vestry meeting he once led. It was a wonderful group of faithful folks who on that night had gotten into the weeds about something that didn’t matter even one little bit. But that didn’t stop some of them from getting a little crosswise with each other. Michael finally had enough and shouted out, ‘Oh the joy of living in community.’

Which are sentiments that I’m sure Jesus was familiar with in our life together with him. We are a mess. His disciples have lately been wondering aloud: I wonder which one of us is the greatest. And so he says, if someone sins against you, you go to that person and tell them. Don’t go tell some other person in the parking lot. Tell the person who hurt you. Anyone knows that just doing that, 95 times out of 100, goes a long way to fixing whatever needs fixing. But, if it doesn’t, bring two or three others to talk with the person who hurt you. Not so they can gang up on that person but so that they can affirm what each of you have said and maybe help the two parties hear each other. And if that doesn’t lead to reconciliation, then the whole community should take up the matter. And if that doesn’t work, then turn away from the offending party, which just makes formal what was probably already true.

What Jesus says tracks pretty closely with something in the Prayer Book called ‘The Disciplinary Rubrics.’ It’s on page 409. If you want, you can read there the pastoral approach a priest should take that might ultimately result in refusing to offer someone Communion. It also says that if a priest takes this step that priest had better call the bishop and let her or him know what is going on because in the church community, we are all accountable. I do want to jump in here and say that in more than 30 years, I’ve never taken such a drastic step and no one I know has either. And that’s not because there hasn’t been conflict. But mostly people talk to each other. Because there’s just too much to lose by not. Namely each other. And God’s dream for us to be a whole community.

Which is the whole point. In a community gathered in Jesus’s Name, there is just too much to lose. A community like this, gathered by the Spirit to be Christ’s Body in the world is a gift of God, something to be treated with great care.

I was reminded of this so vividly two Sundays ago when Amelia met with parents to talk about our children’s ministry. She did an exercise where the group created a little timeline of the past several years. We started the timeline back when Amelia first came and tried to name how the children’s ministry happened then and the changes that have happened. And then came 2020 and a worldwide pandemic where none of us knew our right hand from our left. And one on top of the other, people started remembering what had happened. Someone would mention something, and others would say, ‘oh, I loved that!’ or ‘I’d forgotten that. That was so great!’ One parent started talking about how much it meant when a package came in the mail from church with a project for the Church season or a note or a birthday card. All of them an outward and visible sign, a sacrament of belonging to this community in Christ. And oh, yeah, remember church outdoors and moms getting together on the terrace to talk and share ‘a beverage’? And remember the drive-thru pageant and then the pageant switched to the parking lot at the last minute and the drive-thru meals and time to connect at an open car window which was just as good as the delicious food? And remember the altar guild made scores and scores of little flower arrangements and packed up their cars with them and drove off to give a bunch to someone who was isolated and might be lonely, or to someone who just needed something beautiful, or to someone who just needed a sign that someone loves them, or because it’s what we do for each other. They talked about how much all these different things meant and how all of these things showed us how much we need to be a part of a community that’s built on the life and death and resurrection of Jesus: a life and story spacious enough and gracious enough to hold the mess we are in God’s loving hands; to be his people in the world with a sacred story to tell.

The mission of the Church, of this church, is to reconcile all things to God in Christ, and nothing less. That is happening in communities just like this one, who by grace have been given the gift to bear Christ into this world. God has given us a story to tell. Sometimes it sounds like that group of young parents reflecting on how the Spirit kept us whole when we didn’t know how to stay whole. To be a part of this community makes us accountable to one another by telling the great story of Jesus, one that is spacious enough and gracious enough for the mess we all are, and to live for his high calling to heal this world and nothing less. Amen.

The Rev. David H. May

A Sermon for the Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Jesus Keep Me Near the Cross. You may have heard that before. It’s an old hymn written by Fanny Crosby who wrote thousands of hymns in her lifetime.

Jesus, keep me near the cross,

There a precious fountain;

Free to all, a healing stream,

Flows from Calvary’s mountain.

Near the cross, a trembling soul,

Love and mercy found me.

Near the cross!  I’ll watch and wait,

Hoping, trusting ever;

I’ll confess that I invoke this hymn, or its first line, “Jesus, keep me near the cross,” when I’m about to lose it. Most likely with one of my children or at the TV when the news it on. It is often preceded or followed up with Hail Mary, full of grace. I frequently call upon both Mary and Jesus in a not-so-subtle or possibly reverent way to remind myself of who I am and what I know to be true. It’s like shorthand to remember what I believe and thus far it’s kept me from being arrested for doing something dumb.

I doubt this is a use Fanny Crosby envisioned and my guess is she would not approve of it. And I really do apologize to her for that.

Today’s Gospel reading is probably a familiar to many of you.

If any of you want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 

For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.

Eugene Patterson, author of The Message, a contemporary paraphrasing of the Bible, offers this interpretation of the passage.

Anyone who intends to come with me has to let me lead. You’re not in the driver’s seat. I am. Don’t run from suffering, embrace it. Follow me and I’ll show you how. Self-help is no help at all. Self- sacrifice is the way, my way to finding yourself, your true self. What kind of deal is it to get everything you want but lose yourself? What could you ever trade your soul for?

Let me lead. That sounds doable, right? We can let Jesus lead us? But what does it mean to embrace suffering?

Take up your cross and follow me. I’m afraid that this passage has sometimes given way to something that sounds like this… your cross to bear.

Oh you know so and so, their mother has Alzheimer’s and has to live with them.  What a cross to bear. 

The sentiment is that a cross to bear, embracing suffering, is a burden that is heavy, fraught, and in the end just a sad part of your story. Suffering. Unredeemed.

There is much written about suffering. There are theologians who can speak about it so beautifully. Scores of Christians have taken up this truth of human existence and held it up to the light. Sadly, there are others who comingle suffering with abuse and call it holy. That I cannot abide.

I can speak to suffering as I have known it. What I have learned is that for me my deepest suffering has given way to what starts off as pinpricks of vision into the mercy of God.  Tiny openings where it is not a “silver lining” I have found, but I do see God at work in my life.

I do not believe that God visits suffering upon me to test me. The pain that is part and parcel of being a human is not God’s master plan to torture me into believing. But I do believe that suffering has given me an opportunity to come to the cross, and with trembling soul, find God’s love and mercy. And over time those pinpricks begin to widen, and I can see more clearly what God can do within my own heart. I see the abundance of grace extended to me. What once was a burden or a hurt so heavy I might have even in my despair called it a cross to bear is not gone but changed somehow.

Jesus earlier in the Gospel of Matthew says…

‘Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.’

Jesus’s yoke is love. Self-sacrificing love that he laid on his shoulders for us. And because of Jesus’ sacrifice for us, our yoke is indeed lighter. It is not without pain, but it is lighter. Suffering is most definitely a part of the story, but it is not the end. Love is. Paul, today, talks about the ways Jesus’ love is borne out into this world through those who would take up their cross, their yokes and follow him.

Genuine love. Love that leads us to extend ourselves to others: welcoming strangers, blessing our enemies, weeping with those in pain, celebrating with those who witness joy, choosing wisdom and humbleness over being a haughty braggart. Love that can hold fast to what is good in the face of pain.

I recently heard a story on the news. It is gospel, it is good news. And to me it is a story of someone who took up their cross, of someone for whom embracing suffering and mercy and love is simply part of how he moves through the world.

Robert Carter is a 33-year-old man who lives in Cincinnati. His childhood was marked by poverty, an absent father, and a mother who struggled with alcohol addiction. He ended up in the foster care system at 13, taken away from his eight siblings and not destined for adoption. At 16 he ended up living independently and making his way through high school while working three jobs. After graduation he was eventually able to bring two of his siblings into his home and care for them. He went on to become a hairdresser and open up his own business.

But Robert Carter always wanted a family and so in 2018 he became a foster father to three boys. Three children to care for before he was 30. As the boys were settling into their lives with him, he began to hear them speak about their two sisters. So, Robert Carter went and found the sisters and petitioned the court to take them in, too. All together. A family.

The magistrate who was charged with reviewing this adoption for approval was amazed by Carter.

“I’m thinking, ‘You [Carter] made it out of the foster system, you’re starting your own life, you’re young. This is your chance to do you.’ People are selfish and I’m expecting him to ‘do you,’ so why are you taking on the obligation of five kids? I’m like, ‘Convince me,'” the judge said.

And he did prove it to her. “They are the real deal,” the magistrate said of the family of six. And this, alone, would be a story of suffering and mercy and love.But there is more.

Four years ago, Robert Carter’s mother got sober and reentered his life.  And he reconciled with his father. Today the five Carter children have a dad and aunts and uncles who love them along with two grandparents who do, too.

In the interview, the reporter asked Carter how, how did he manage to get through school and into adulthood on his own. He said he saw what happened to his parents and he did not want that life for himself. And when asked how it is that he finds it within himself to be a parent to five children, Robert Carter said, “I feel like I just used my trauma and my hurting to be my fuel to keep going and to want better, and want to help people and do better in life.”

I do not know if Robert Carter is a Christian, but I can tell you that what I see in him is an example of someone keeping near the cross. He took the suffering of growing up without a parent and through genuine love and perseverance he became the parent that he had needed. And then in love and mercy he has opened his home to his own parents. Genuine love. A love that does not seek to serve self but others. He has certainly “done better.”

I’ll watch and wait,

Hoping, trusting ever;

Amelia McDaniel

A Sermon for the Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Every week at our staff meeting, we do some sort of spiritual practice to gather ourselves up and pause. It is so tempting to rush from one thing to the next, but this always helps us center for a moment. Ryan, if you don’t know, is really talented at leading mindful, meditative practices. And this past week, he led us in a breathing exercise for our spiritual practice, and just like every time we’ve done this before, I was amazed. Amazed at the power of slowing down and thinking about my breath and connecting with my body. Anytime we do this practice, I sit there and realize that I flat out forget about this thing that breathes and moves and carries me from place to place. I’ll get to the end of a day and go, “huh, I guess I kept breathing all day,” or “huh, I wonder how long my feet have been hurting.” It’s wild how these bodies do so much for us, but if we aren’t intentional, we forget about them. Or sometimes we’re aware of them, but only because it hurts and it aches or isn’t working quite right. Sometimes we can’t escape the reality of the brokenness, the imperfections, the shortcomings of our flesh and bones.

But how often do we slow down, pay attention, breathe, and really think about this mysterious, beautiful, complex thing?

Because they are quite amazing, our bodies. They get us where we need to go. They take us to our schools, our jobs. They are a part of our relationships and connect us, through a hug or a handshake or a smile. They bring us joy with dance or a hike. They are our tether to this physical world. And, as Paul gets at in the passage today, they are even a part of the spiritual one, too.

In this section from Romans, he points to this reality that our physical bodies are connected to our life of faith. They are a living sacrifice, or an offering, to God, he says. Even a part of our worship of God. Now, in his world, animal sacrifice was still a huge component of how the people of God worshiped, but he’s saying, no, actually, your body is to be a part of your relationship with God. Not some animals, presented slaughtered and lifeless, but you yourself are an offering that is living, and breathing, and holy, and good.

These bodies, they are gifts from God. In our baptisms and in our belief in Christ, our whole selves have been united with Christ’s body. And if ours is united to his, then ours is redeemed like his. We are made new in Him. From head to toe and everything in between.

Yes, we still grow and age and face the reality of being a creature, we are also infused with mercy and grace and goodness. And even more, Paul says, our bodies are a way in which we connect to God and worship Him and live out this faith. In other words, our faith is embodied. Our belief in God is somehow lived out this way, not just as some practice of the mind or intellectual pursuit.

What if, day to day, we remembered that? Well, what would it even look like? For a start, as Episcopalians, we actually have some of the most embodied liturgy. I heard someone once say, I love going to Episcopal services, but all the movement keeps me from getting in a good nap. Because we are up, then were down, we are standing, then were kneeling, we are crossing, and maybe even bowing, we shake hands, we come forward, we eat and drink, we sing. We move and engage our whole selves in this act of worshiping God. And over time, this physical dimension of our spiritual life becomes as routine to our bodies as blinking or breathing. It becomes engrained in how we act out our belief.

In seminary, I interned at a retirement community, and we had a weekly Sunday morning service. We were coming up on the Baptism of Our Lord Sunday, or that day in the church calendar when we remember Jesus’s baptism, and in turn, our own. The chaplaincy staff and I brainstormed how we might get the residents to remember their baptisms, but we had to be creative. Most places might put the baptismal font in the back of the church, so when you walk in, you touch your hand to water and maybe cross yourself. But, in a place full of the immunocompromised, germs were always a concern. So, no communal water touching. I threw out the idea that we pass out those small glass pebbles that are smooth and rounded, but flat on the bottom. We could get clear or blue ones that resemble water. Wouldn’t this be a sanitary way for each person to take home a token to remember the gift of baptism?

So, during the service, we each grabbed a basket of glass pebbles and started weaving through the rows of chairs. I began placing a pebble in each outstretched hand, encouraging them to remember the miracle of baptism, and feeling pretty proud of myself for having an idea that worked. But before too long, I realized that things weren’t going well. Some of the residents were taking the glass pebbles and popping them in their mouth. They were literally trying to eat them, and I saw caregivers around the room start fishing them out of their mouths. What in the world?! Now a good portion of the congregation had declining memories, and were nonverbal, or pretty unable to comprehend and to participate, but still, why would they just immediately eat something put in their hand that obviously wasn’t food? And then I went to give someone else their pebble, and they stuck their tongue out, and it hit me. We were in church, and the pastors were weaving through the pews offering up something to outstretched hands. And it looked and it felt a whole lot like Eucharist. We very rarely had communion at this service due to mobility and health concerns, but their bodies still kicked into gear as soon as we started coming around. Their minds weren’t even able to process what was going on, but the past 80, 85, 90 years of receiving the Eucharist was so engrained into their life of faith, had so formed their bodies, that they couldn’t help but receive that wafer-like object and treat it like the body and bread of Christ.

And it was perhaps the most profound example of embodied faith I have ever seen. Yes, I felt quite badly that I was almost responsible for dozens of choking incidents, but I also left that service thinking, “wow, how beautiful. And ever since then, I ask the question, “how should I be living out my faith now, so that it will become so a part of me that even when my memory is weak and maybe largely unaware, my body will still know what to do? How can I offer up myself to God so routinely that my flesh and my bones are literally hardwired to worship?”

Yes, our liturgy is a huge part of that, but so too is our work, our recreation, our relationships, I think. We have a choice of how to use these bodies day to day, of whether to serve one another or only ourselves, to show compassion to our neighbor or to pass them by, to preserve creation or to tear it down, to invest in all areas of this city or only spend time in our bubble, to shake the hand of sometime different than us or turn our back to them.

Somehow, what we do with our bodies matters. They are our connection to this beautiful, physical life, they are a gift from God. And they are our offering to God, our means of living out our faith in Christ, our chance to be a part of God’s redemptive work in the world. And the more we do it, the more routine it becomes, so just maybe, like those folks in the retirement community that day, we too will find that at the end of our days, we’ve been so formed that these flesh and these bones still know how to believe. And that even when our memories have run dry, our bodies literally cannot help but to worship and to praise the goodness and mercy of God.


The Rev. Kilpy Singer

A Sermon for the Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost

August 20th, 2023

Like it or not, I guess, when we were born into this world, we inherited ‘lines in the sand’ that had already been drawn. Those lines in the sand were already there as soon as we began to learn how to walk on our own two feet and began learn how to speak for ourselves. In fact, some of those ‘lines in the sand’ influence where we think our feet can take us and what words we can say or not. As we grow up we find out about those lines sometimes when we accidentally cross one of them. And sometimes we’re told about those lines pretty explicitly. I remember hearing: ‘you’ll be known by the company you keep’, or, ‘if you lie down with dogs you are going to get fleas’.

I was hanging out with some boys in my neighborhood when I was a kid who were a little rougher than my mother was comfortable with and she told me so. I thought she just didn’t understand them. But one summer, some of these boys got in trouble with the police for breaking into a neighbor’s house when they were away on vacation and vandalizing the house. I didn’t have anything to do with it but that didn’t stop a Chesterfield County police officer from coming by our house and questioning me. To my mother’s credit, I don’t remember her saying, ‘I told you so’. I guess she didn’t have to.

But then there are lines drawn in the sand that don’t seem to have anything to do with getting fleas. I wish it was as simple as that. One afternoon, at least twenty years ago, I was driving downtown to visit a parishioner who lived in the Mosby Court. She’d been at my parish for two or three years and she was living proof that God’s mission for the church is about opening doors not closing them. I was stopped at a light near the housing complex where my parishioner lived and a young man came up to my car and motioned for me to roll down my window. I did and he said, ‘hey, what’s going on?’ and I said, ‘I’m heading to see a parishioner’. He said, ‘Yeh, that’s good. Look,’ he said, ‘you don’t really want to be around here, ok?’ I said, ‘what?’ He said, ‘yeh, you probably just want to go on now’. And then he walked off. It wasn’t a warning. And it wasn’t concern for me. It was just a simple statement.

The truth is that a line in the sand had gotten crossed that neither I or that young man had put there. But that didn’t matter. There was no right or wrong about it. It just was. It was just one more example of Martin Luther’s famous words that our lives are cut out of crooked wood. I remember sitting there at the light feeling like everything was starting to swim around on me, like I’d just caught ‘situational vertigo’. Everything had gotten sort of weird and unsettling. But I think that’s what it’s like when we come upon those ‘lines in the sand’ and cross over into this borderline ‘no-man’s zone’, where people find it hard to be people with each other.

The Gospel reading this morning plunks us down in one of those places. Jesus, fresh from bickering and arguing with a group of Pharisees, leaders of his own people, people on his side of the line, goes for a long walk with his friends. Maybe he needed to clear his head. Maybe he just wanted to walk it off. Maybe he wasn’t paying attention, but he walked and walked til he went past all the familiar signs of home and crossed over the line in the sand between his own people, the Jews, and ‘those other people’, in this case the Canaanites. The Canaanites were the people who were already living in the Promised Land when Moses led the children of Israel in to possess that land as their new home. The Canaanites were an old and ancient enemy and they lived over there, not here. And they were the kind of people you told stories about – the way they lived, what they thought about things – but had never actually met. They were the kind of people you didn’t need to concern yourself with much, at least not as real people. We are us and they are them. Line in the sand drawn. Case closed. End of story. It has been that way, it will stay that way. Nothing else to tell.

Most people if they find themselves in one of those borderline places observe the niceties with their eyes down, mouths closed, and just keep moving til you can get back to your side of the line where you can be yourself again. And that’s what looks like is happening with Jesus and his followers. They are just passing through.

And then the most amazing, strange, confusing, disturbing, glorious thing happens. A Canaanite woman – the kind of person you hear about but never meet, – decides not to keep her eyes down and her mouth closed, but raises her face and looks Jesus in the eye and opens her mouth. “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.”

Well. Her baby girl is in agony. She can be forgiven for breaking form, for stepping over the line. Your own heart tells you that.

But when lines get crossed, things start swimming around, ‘situational vertigo’ sets in and what you thought was up is down. What comes next for us is like a compass needle spinning unable to find true north. Our own hearts tell us that we could easily find words to say to her in response like how sorry we are or even to ask for her name so we could pray for her. But Jesus doesn’t say a word to her. And even when the woman meets his silence with more words, pleading for her daughter, those words are met with harsh words from the disciples: be quiet, get away, you probably just want to go on now, they say.

Jesus finally speaks to say that he must be obedient to his call to feed the lost sheep of Israel. He must remain himself – feeding the children and not throwing what little there is to the dogs.

Which are words that send the compass spinning even more wildly. What in the world are we to make of his words? Is he testing her? Is he testing himself and his own call as Messiah?

And what comes next is the assurance that however obvious and clear a line in the sand seems, however certain it appears that the story about us and them has been told to the end with no more words to come; we see that the story that we were sure was finished, isn’t. The Canaanite woman says to Jesus that the mercy with which he is feeding the lost sheep of Israel is enough to feed her too. Even just word that there’s a man like him in the world doing what he’s doing, even just word of that, gives her enough faith to hope he might care about her life too.

And the spinning compass lands square and solid on true north with Jesus words, ‘Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.’ And her daughter was healed instantly. Mercy, and not lines in the sand, are the final word.

We may not on any given day be called to be as brave as that Canaanite woman. Especially those times when it seems like God is silent to us too. We know that there are lines in the sand drawn that were laid down long before we came onto the scene. Sometimes those lines seem to be an immoveable ending. But we follow in the footsteps of Jesus, free to let our feet follow where he leads, and where those ‘lines in the sand’, become the place where the newest words of the story that God is telling that heals the world, begin. Amen.

The Rev. David May