Roots and Wings

September 4, 2016

by the Rev. Emily Rowell  Brown

Philemon 1-21
Luke 14:25-33

For the past few weeks, my husband Dan and I have attended training sessions required for foster and adoption approval, and a theme that surfaces repeatedly is attachment. I imagine most of us have associations with that word, whether it conjures up images of baby-wearing parents who subscribe to attachment parenting philosophies, children who struggle to bond because they have suffered abuse, or teenagers in love for the first time who cannot bear to be separated. We generally think of attachment as a good, healthy thing, assuming that there is an appropriate balance between autonomy and dependence.

Yet Jesus seems to suggest the opposite. His prescription challenges 21st century parenting advice and most conventional relationship wisdom, for he commands his followers to sever all of their attachments. Relationships, possessions, and other worldly ties have no place in the cultivation of discipleship. Jesus’ holy world and the “regular” world may not coexist.

Such a pronounced division between the spiritual and secular does not, however, jibe with how Jesus practiced his ministry on the ground. Although some interpretations of today’s gospel emphasize that Jesus’ call here is to individual relationship–a “Jesus and me is all that matters” sort of mentality–when we consider the entire thrust of Jesus’ ministry, these readings fall apart. Jesus indeed cared deeply about communal relationships, for he rooted his ministry in relationship with his disciples, and particularly, close relationships with the Twelve. And our God in essence is relationship, for what is the Trinity but the expression of a God who wants to exist in community, as Father, Son, and Spirit? Jesus also cared about possessions–namely, he sought to provide for those who did not have any, feeding the hungry, tending to the ill, and honoring the poor. No, Jesus blended the spiritual and secular at every turn.

Rather, Jesus’ statements here seem to exhibit his fondness for hyperbole. We might remember a similar sentiment from the gospel several weeks ago, when Jesus predicted that father would be divided against son and mother against daughter in the dawn of God’s kingdom.[1] If we compare Matthew’s version of Jesus’ call for decision to forsake everything and everyone in order to become a disciple, we see gentler language, but even so, the message is the same. As Matthew puts it, “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.”[2] In short, hating one’s family meant that, when push came to shove, Jesus took precedence. One was a disciple before one was a daughter or a father or businessman or a citizen. To follow Jesus was–is–to redefine every aspect of life in light of God’s call.

Jesus knew full well the cost of such discipleship, for he modeled it in life and in death, enduring ridicule and hardship as he persisted in serving God. The crowds may have hoped that Jesus would lead a revolution to overthrow the Roman government, and projected their hopes and dreams for a better world upon him unto his end, yet Jesus invited them to participate in something not glorious and splashy and easy but humble and unglamorous and difficult. Jesus welcomed others to join his movement but had little tolerance for half-hearted followers. You were either all in or you were out.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer is a theologian often invoked with this gospel. One of his most famous books, The Cost of Discipleship, distinguishes between cheap and costly grace. The reason Bonhoeffer’s words have such power is that they are not only insightful but indicative of how he lived his life. No one understood better than he how costly it could be to follow Jesus: Bonhoeffer died in prison because of his resistance to the Nazi authorities. The Christianity invoked by the Nazis and the Christianity Bonhoeffer knew proved incompatible.

We too know about cheap grace. Cheap grace, according to Bonhoeffer, is “grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ.” It’s the idea that all is well and good because we subscribe to a particular set of beliefs about Jesus atoning for our sins, go to church fairly regularly, and feel secure that we will go to heaven, but Jesus has no claim on how we actually live in the here and now. How many more Christians in name are there than Christians in practice? But the grace Jesus offers paradoxically quiets and stirs our hearts in a way that nothing else can. Jesus acknowledges upfront that the risks and consequences of discipleship may be mighty, but so also are the rewards.

One message we should not take away from this scripture, however, is that discipleship happens in isolation. Our relationship with Jesus defines but does not exclude the possibility for all of our other relationships. Jesus lives, after all, in our communities, which is why Paul spends so much time negotiating relationships in his letters. To revisit that word “attachment”: Jesus does not necessarily call for no attachments but he does call us to question them–

Discipleship calls us to rethink who we include in our family and how we define our possessions. Perhaps our family becomes less about our biological ties and more about the people who surround us as we break bread. Jesus’ insistence that we renounce our possessions is characteristic of Luke, but in this context, I think Jesus cares less about followers having nothing and more about followers thinking about possessions not as their own but as belonging to all of God’s people. The earliest Christian communities described in Acts, after all shared their belongings. In today’s epistle, while we take issue with Paul’s seeming endorsement of (or at least acquiescence to) slavery, Paul clearly instructs the wealthy Philemon to provide hospitality both to Onesimus (and to Paul, for that matter). In other words, those who have resources should make sure everyone has resources.

I will end by sharing a metaphor from one of my training sessions that holds wisdom not only for foster parents but for those of us seeking to be faithful disciples. As the social worker said, children need roots and wings–roots so that they know where and who they came from, and that they have a support system holding them up, and wings so that they can launch and engage the world as strong, independent citizens. Same with disciples: we need roots, which we find here in church, in our worship, in our remembering the stories of those who came before us, and in our life together, and wings, so that we may serve God in the way that we each are uniquely called. Using our wings can be scary, but Jesus will catch us when we fall.

[1] Luke 12:49-56.

[2] Matthew 10:37.


We Didn’t Start the Fire

August 14, 2016

by Emily Rowell Brown, Associate Rector


Jeremiah 23:23-29
Luke 12:49-56

Fire holds memories for us all.  Maybe, like my husband, you remember fondly your Boy Scout trips, gathering kindling and just the right mixture of small sticks and thick wood to make a fire by your campground.  Fire was adventure, a tangible fruit of hard labor, and excitement, all in one.

Maybe you have lost your treasured belongings in a fire.  Your house, your dearest recollections, and the wretched wallpaper you kept meaning to replace have all been consumed by flames.  You realize both how much and how little possessions mean.

Maybe you watch the flicker of the candle flames on the altar each week at church and almost feel the spirit’s breath making the light dance and the wax trickle elegantly down the candlesticks.

Maybe you have traveled to a place very unlike most places in the States and witnessed the live-giving capacity of fire, how citizens of this globe depend on fire to warm, to sterilize, to cook, and to illuminate.  Of course, we all rely on fire, but with increasingly advanced technology, we create layers which remove us from its centrality to our survival.

Then there is the fire of the Bible.  We may think about how God chose to appear to Moses in a burning bush, or of the many times fire is invoked as a part of God’s judgment: the wicked will be burned.  We may think about the fiery gates of hell or about the fire of the Holy Spirit, which purified and enlivened the first Christians.

Fire: it illuminates, but it also consumes.  It gives life but it also destroys.  It cannot be easily touched or contained.

We hear God likened to fire again and again, and today’s texts prove no exception.  What does it mean to follow a God of fire?

This imagery holds dimensions at once positive and negative, reassuring and frightening.  Lest we imagine that hearing God’s voice is an easy endeavor, the depiction of God’s word possessing the power of fire and the reality-smashing capacity similar to a hammer taken to rock lets us know otherwise.  Be careful, these texts seem to say.  Be sure that you know what you are doing.  Do not take someone who claims to speak God’s word at face value.  Do your own discernment.

Ultimately, that’s the million dollar question, isn’t it?  How do we know what God is saying in the here-and-now?  Whom do we believe and whom do we follow?  Which voices command our attention, and which are noise, or worse, antithetical to God’s wishes?

As we see in Jeremiah, and still often is the case, communities can lift one another up, and call each other to be better (as we pray we do here week after week), but so also can their bad behavior be mutually reinforcing.  In other words, there are not simply bad leaders who lead people astray, or bad people who reject their righteous leaders, but there are people who want affirmation of their destructive habits and leaders who will say what the crowds want to hear to gain and remain in power.  False prophets are more popular.

When we listen to the true prophets in the midst of us, we face decision.  Today’s gospel contains some of Luke’s most challenging content.  Jesus calls for division, not peace, struggle not reconciliation.  Before God’s kingdom comes to fruition human beings must make the commitment to follow Jesus above all else.  Because Christianity is still a dominant part of our culture, the repercussions of acting on faith are not severe or disruptive for most of us, but for the first Christians, Jesus’ message was not met with majority approval.  To side with Jesus was to side with risk and danger, and to potentially face such circumstances alone, if your loved ones did not choose your path.  Still today, depending on where you live, consequences for professing and following a particular Lord can prove deadly.

If we think about it, even Jesus faced this intense separation.  He was the first to be divided from his family, for he was separated from his Father and mother in death.  This is not to glorify suffering and martyrdom as constitutive of faith but it is to recognize that God has the power to unify and divide.

We will take a side whether we realize it or not.  Not making a decision is a decision.  We decide every day whether we are listening to the genuine prophets among us or if we are following paths leading further away from God.  How we know whether something is the word of God or not is tricky business.  May we not forget that God is not a force we can domesticate; God is likened to fire for a reason!  Be suspicious of anyone who claims to speak for God (myself included!).  That said, the next time you are convinced–or not–that God said so, of course turn to the Bible and prayer.  But also try the following:

  1. Pay attention to what garners our attention. What we give our time and money tells us about our priorities.  For the crowds surrounding Jesus, their God was weather and harvest and ultimately money, for these things ensured that they would eat and survive another day.  They paid more careful attention to the sky than to many of their relationships or other spiritual concerns because first and foremost, they sought to meet their basic physical needs.  We need continually to ask ourselves whether we are we paying attention to the right things, whether God is likely to show up in the company we keep.
  1. Don’t be afraid to get rattled. God disrupts.  God surprises us, showing up in all the places we never expected.  If you feel too secure in your relationship with God, seek out a little discomfort.  God pushes us so we will grow.
  1. Go elsewhere. Sometimes the spark of our faith diminishes.  What worked in the past no longer works, and words that we once lived by, we now find devoid of meaning.  Try painting instead of praying or join a new community.  Sometimes different experiences allow us to return with fresh eyes to see, and sometimes we find that we need to appreciate our old places for the role they once played and embrace the ways God is showing up to us now.

I am fascinated by the recent surge of ex-evangelical Christian memoirs on the market (and, not to toot our own horn too much, but many of these writers have since become Episcopalian).  They describe the intensity of their fervor and devotion to their brand of religion only to find that it didn’t hold up; it broke.[1]

But what is courageous about these stories of burnout and evolving faith is that these individuals all kept searching for God, and they were not afraid to change their minds.  They admitted that they did not have direct access or insider knowledge to God’s will more than anyone else, but they kept seeking–still seek–moment by moment, day by day, praying that they move where God’s spirit blows.

May God’s fire keep burning within each and every one of us.


[1] One writer Addie Zierman even goes so far as to say that I wrote When We Were On Fire because somewhere in the growing up, the flame flickered out, and I thought it was because I had failed somehow. I struck myself like a flint against church after church, trying to ignite some kind of spark. Instead I ended up angry, hurt, bitter, broken. She invites others to post their own burnout stories on her blog, and she received more than one hundred contributions.  Clearly she is not alone in her experience.


Live to Give

July 31, 2016

by Emily Rowell Brown

Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14; 2:18-23
Luke 12:13-21

One of the questions I am asked most often when people learn that I am a minister has to do with how I prepare sermons. I answer that I typically read the lectionary for the coming Sunday on Monday, listen to podcasts and study commentaries on the texts over the course of the week, and allow the scriptures to marinate. The Holy Spirit will do her work and will pull me towards a theme, and Friday or Saturday, I write.

But this week, that didn’t happen. That one direction did not emerge. The Spirit planted many seeds, all of which beckoned for my attention.

Here’s another unspoken rule about sermon preparation: I was taught (as are many priests) to take myself out of the sermon as much as possible because the sermon is not about any one individual’s experience but about what touches all, albeit to greater and lesser degrees any given Sunday.

Today therefore marks a departure on two counts: my process consisted in following many rather than a singular thread, and I am about to talk more about myself than I’d like.

Last Sunday, and hours before I read this week’s text, my husband Dan and I found out we received an inheritance from his grandmother that we had not expected at all. I cannot separate my reading of this text from this recent personal event–the timing is too coincidental and has God’s handwriting all over it.

I also have had on my nightstand Rob Bell’s How to Be Here and Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic, both books which have been published in the past year and which make the point that creativity is a fundamental part of the human experience. To make life worth living, we need to to do what brings us joy, to express ourselves in ways that only we can, to do what is entirely nonessential and yet vital for our souls’ well-being. Their books celebrate self-indulgence and self-importance, arguing that we each have a unique perspective to offer the world. In other words, these two authors make precisely the opposite point of our scriptures–or so it seems. Whereas Luke and Qohelet (the figurative writer of Ecclesiastes, which translated means “Collector”) suggest that we all, whether rich or poor, important or insignificant, old or young, leave this life in the same way, Bell and Gilbert claim that this life does matter; it matters very much.

Yet we should not too quickly render the message of today’s lectionary as one which diminishes the life here on this earth, even though at first blush such appears the case. It is the false promises for happiness that are the issue, not the human experience itself. When we seek to ease our restlessness and insecurity by gaining fame and prestige, or by acquiring money and material possessions, or by working so hard that we never have a moment left for being still, we distance ourselves from our fellow humans and from God. We try desperately to forget that we rely upon each other, this creation, and our Lord to survive every day. Imagine if any one of these collapsed: we would not soldier on for long.

That is partly why the rich fool (as he is commonly known) in today’s gospel commits such an egregious crime. He seeks further to differentiate himself from his fellow humans. Rather than accepting the plentiful harvest as a gift and seeing it as an opportunity to share his good fortune with his neighbors, he thinks only of himself. His world begins and ends with him and himself, leaving no space for God or anyone else.

This warning against money ensuring success and favor finds critique in our scriptures, and especially by Luke, again and again. It may remind us of the line “give us this day our daily bread” from the Lord’s Prayer, which, as Weezie told us last week, recognizes our reliance upon God to provide for us every single day. Or it may call to mind the story of the Israelites in the wilderness attempting to store up manna only to find that it spoiled the next day because of their refusal to trust God’s promise to give abundantly always.

What if the rich man instead filled his existing barns and gave away what was left over? Or what if, in an even bigger act of faith, he immediately set aside a proportion to distribute to others before saving any for himself? In church, we hear of this concept as proportional giving, but it dates back to well before Jesus’ time. Tithing was a practice of the Israelites and Jews before Christians even entered the picture. Ten percent came right off the top because nothing really belonged to any one person; rather, it all ultimately was God’s. Tithing was an expectation, not a generous action. Not to tithe was to take unfairly, to hold on greedily to what one could not rightfully claim.

I heard a Methodist pastor’s reflections on this gospel this week (she actually serves a church here in Richmond), and she cited the figure 65 billion dollars as the annual amount needed to end worldwide poverty. American churches alone have the capacity to do so, if only everyone who claimed to be Christian would give 10 percent.

Whether we are talking about our annual income, an unexpected windfall, or, as was the case for me this week, an inheritance, this charge hits close to home for us all. Dan and I have felt the impulse to grasp tightly. This gift will help us save for our future children’s college and affords us security, but when we get too carried away, we forget just what it was: a gift. It does not belong solely to us. We have learned a few practical tricks along the way about giving: we set up automatic monthly deductions from our bank account to distribute to our favorite organizations rather than waiting to see what we have left over; we pledge and hold ourselves to our word; we vocalize our giving intentions and keep each other accountable. Nonetheless, the practice does not always come easily.

Trust resides at the root of faithful living, whether expressed in holding our material blessings loosely or searching for our creative calling. Bell and Gilbert so appropriately speak to these scriptures because they pinpoint that a meaningful life consists in resting in the belief that we do have a contribution to make to this creation. We do not live only for ourselves but as a participant in this amazing but troubled world.

Eternal life is not what waits for us when we die but what happens when we eschew the trappings that Qohelet and Luke mention and instead rest in God’s provision. Eternal life is seeing abundance, not scarcity. Eternal life is when we ask how we can enrich this world rather than how the world can enrich us.

There’s Something About Mary and Martha

July 17, 2016  by Emily Rowell Brown

Genesis 18:1-10a

Luke 10:38-42

Are you a Mary or a Martha?  If you have encountered today’s gospel before, you likely have heard that question raised, whether explicitly or implicitly.  The line of interpretation typically sounds something like this: Martha misses God by staying in the kitchen while Mary makes herself present to Jesus.  Listening to God’s Word is better than doing busy work.  In short, Mary=good.  Martha=bad. Sound familiar?

While there is much in the text to commend that perspective, I am not sure that we need to subscribe to such an either/or framework (and I say that not only because I am an unabashed Martha).  That is, we need not to choose whether to model either Mary or Martha, but we might have something to learn from both women.

For one thing, we read today’s gospel especially attuned to theme of hospitality because our lectionary has paired the story of Abraham’s demonstration of hospitality to strangers with Martha’s hospitality in preparing for Jesus.  Both Abraham and Martha recognize that it is material comforts–food, water, respite–that make anyone feel cared for, welcome, and as though they are at home.  Providing for human beings’ physical needs may seem overly basic or undistinguished, unfitting for God’s work, but we cannot forget that the theme which appears over and over again throughout our scriptures, and what Jesus made clear himself, is that following God is not simply an intellectual endeavor.  It involves meeting people’s hungers–spiritual and bodily.  Abraham did not realize that he was actually meeting angels when he attended to the three unfamiliar men, but he did so as an expression of his faith and its call to show hospitality to the stranger.  And Jesus may not have spoken as eloquently to Mary, after all, had he been ravenous and exhausted.

Another laudable thing about Martha’s work is that it is, according to the Greek, diakonia, or service.  We know that word from our role “deacon,” who, in the Episcopal Church, serve God by providing a link between the church and the world.  Understanding Martha’s tasks not as insignificant or tedious but as divine work means that she too plays an important part in Jesus’ ministry.

But the story would not be very interesting if it simply stopped with Martha welcoming and preparing her home for Jesus.  The problem lies in her distraction by the tasks, not in the doing of the tasks themselves.  Some feminist interpreters, however, have had a good time suggesting that this text actually is helpful to women who do not believe that their place is in the kitchen since it praises Mary and condemns Martha for her preoccupation!

Mary acts as a complement to Martha.  In Mary, we witness a beautiful model of the ministry of presence.  She shows up and listens attentively, a role not typically afforded to women at that time when teaching was concerned.  She is a disciple as much as Peter or James or John or any of the other twelve (or seventy or however you choose to count); she immerses herself in Jesus’ teachings and dedicates herself to following God’s way.  She honed in on the one thing, or being present to God.

So if we were to create a hierarchy, Mary would come out on top because, according to Jesus, she chose the better form of discipleship.  But imagine his words less as a rebuke and more as a gentle reassurance to Martha.  “What you are doing is enough,” he seems to imply.  “You have taken me into your own home.  The hard part is done.  Come, be with me now.  That is what matters.”  Martha already has taken that first step, the one which so often is most difficult: she opened up herself, and her home, an extension of herself, to this man named Jesus who was traveling to Jerusalem and needed a place to rest.  She welcomed her neighbor.

Making that initial move might actually prove as challenging as remaining present.  How hard is it to have someone over, knowing that piles of laundry decorate the couch, children’s artwork and bills cover our counter-tops, and dust bunnies dot our baseboards?  Or to invite the new neighbors over for dinner, fearing that conversation will be stiff and awkward?  Or to try to get to know the person in your office of another race or religion or class?  As Matt said last week, it is so much easier to love the neighbor who is just like us.  It is those who are different that trip us up.

Hospitality is one of the ways we love our neighbor.  We learn first and foremost about hospitality from God, for what did God do for us but invite us to share the incredible universe?  Hospitality is about creating space on our turf and no longer claiming it as our turf but making room for the other.  Martha, as we saw, began but lost her way.  Part of welcoming Jesus into her home not only meant honoring his hunger but allowing herself to be transformed by him, something which proved impossible if she continued to plow single-mindedly through her elaborate dinner preparations.

Martha comes across as a bit of a caricature, and her mistake seems so obvious, but we fall into the same habit all the time, even churches.  Perhaps especially churches.  We make refreshments for the visitors we say we are excited to get to know but then forget to greet those visitors because we are too busy arranging the platters of treats back in the kitchen.  Or we bristle when we hear what we consider to be an “extreme” opinion in a Bible study or someone in the carpool circle espousing provocative political ideas.  Or, equally important: we struggle to be on the receiving side of hospitality, making excuses for why we cannot accept an invitation from a distant acquaintance or a lavish offer which we fear we can never repay.

But, lest we forget, we find God in those opportunities for hospitality.  Every single one of them.  Sometimes we resemble Abraham, welcoming strangers out of duty and kindness, none the wiser that it God’s messengers who stand before us, and sometimes we follow the examples of Martha and Mary, carving out space for Jesus to reside beside us, and embracing his many possibilities.  Whether we register it or not, the face on the other side is always God.