Voluntold: A Homily for the Feast of St. Matthias the Apostle

Offered today at the noon Eucharist at Church of the Holy Family…

Acts 1:15-26

Peter stood up among the believers (together the crowd numbered about one hundred twenty persons) and said, “Friends, the scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit through David foretold concerning Judas, who became a guide for those who arrested Jesus — for he was numbered among us and was allotted his share in this ministry.

So one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us — one of these must become a witness with us to his resurrection.”

So they proposed two, Joseph called Barsabbas, who was also known as Justus, and Matthias. Then they prayed and said, “Lord, you know everyone’s heart. Show us which one of these two you have chosen to take the place in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside to go to his own place.” And they cast lots for them, and the lot fell on Matthias; and he was added to the eleven apostles.

Have you ever heard the term “voluntold”? A quick Internet search defines this word as being “forcibly volunteered,” as when “a task that was once voluntary has now been assigned to you.”

For example, you’ve volunteered for a number of years to bring food to a particular church event…and suddenly you’re practically the caterer of the event! You’ve been a member of something for a while…and suddenly you get an email with your name listed under “co-chair.” Sounds like you’ve been voluntold.

St. Matthias is, in a sense, voluntold to be among the 12 disciples, replacing Judas after Judas’ betrayal of Jesus and subsequent death. As in a military draft, Matthias gets called upon for this task and seems to respond dutifully.

How does Matthias get called? I see a two-part process.

First, even before Matthias gets called, he was there. He was showing up. Acts 1:21 describes Matthias as “one of the men who has accompanied us all this time.” He has accompanied the disciples. Not been in an “inner circle,” not been honored or promoted or elected to anything or even really mentioned in the Scriptures up to this point. If I was Matthias, I might have gotten frustrated with that sort of invisibility. But Matthias stayed faithful.

Second, even after Matthias gets called, he is faithful. The disciples put forward 2 people and cast lots between them. It sounds strange to our modern ears — casting lots. Being “voluntold” today often has a negative connotation. We might protest “Hey, I didn’t sign myself up for that!” But this is following Jesus that we’re talking about. This call, for Matthias, seems to be worth following even if it comes randomly, suddenly, unexpectedly. So, again Matthias stays faithful.

We hear in the gospel of John, chapter 15, another of today’s readings, that Jesus says to his followers, including to us: “You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last.”

We’re not necessarily called to say “yes” to just anything and everything we get “voluntold” to do in this life. But if the call is from Jesus? If the call is to bear good fruit? Then may we be numbered among those who say “yes.”   

May we, following the command of our Lord Jesus Christ and the example of St. Matthias, stay faithful to notice, this day and always, how God is appointing us to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last.



Best of ’17

The past few years, at the end of the calendar year, I’ve posted a list of my favorite books read, blogs read, and blogs written. But I’ve been less actively blogging in 2017 and more actively writing other things (because, well, grad school!), as well as pretty actively living, learning, serving, and so on.

So, this year I’ll try something a little different. I could be super cool like Barack Obama and share my favorite books and songs. But, let’s face it, his musical tastes are hipper than mine. So here’s 17 books I’m glad I read and 17 things I’m glad I experienced.

17 Books I’m Glad I Read:

  1. Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone by Brene Brown
  2. The Prophetic Imagination by Walter Brueggeman
  3. Bipolar Faith: A Black Woman’s Journey with Depression and Faith by Monica A. Coleman
  4. God of the Oppressed by James Cone
  5. A Womanist Pastoral Theology Against Intimate and Cultural Violence by Stephanie M. Crumpton
  6. Darkness Is My Only Companion: A Christian Response to Mental Illness by Kathryn Greene-McCreight
  7. Coming Clean: A Story of Faith by Seth Haines
  8. Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence – From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror by Judith L. Herman
  9. Sacred Wounds: A Path to Healing from Spiritual Trauma by Teresa Pasquale Mateus
  10. Healing Spiritual Wounds: Reconnecting with a Loving God After Experiencing a Hurtful Church by Carol Howard Merritt
  11. Counseling Women: A Narrative, Pastoral Approach by Christie Cozad Neuger
  12. Life of the Beloved: Spiritual Living in a Secular World by Henri Nouwen
  13. Leaving Church: A Memoir of Faith by Barbara Brown Taylor
  14. The Book of Forgiving: The Fourfold Path for Healing Ourselves and Our World by Desmond Tutu
  15. The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Bessel Van der Kolk
  16. Broken by Ryan Casey Waller
  17. The Gift of Therapy: An Open Letter to a New Generation of Therapists and Their Patients by Irvin D. Yalom

17 Things I’m Glad I Experienced:

  1. Decorating funfetti cupcakes with friends around a backyard firepit on my birthday
  2. Giving a eulogy at my Grandma’s memorial service after she passed away this year
  3. Having friends and priests and mentors who let me cry — when it was finals week and Grandma died, when it was Holy Week and Jesus died, when it was an ordinary week and sometimes my hope and joy had just up and died
  4. Having strong faithful older women in particular who prayed for me and with me and over me
  5. Disconnecting from one church & connecting with another (the six-word memoir version of a whole spiritual saga, friends)
  6. Making a home in a place I’ve only known for 1.5 years
  7. Wading in a creek in Bryson City, NC surrounded by fireflies and distant children’s laughter and sweet summer stillness
  8. One word: therapy
  9. Canoeing on the Eno River with an old friend — even if that included dropping my phone in the river bank, fishing it out with the assistance of humorous yet helpful bystanders, and resurrecting it to full functioning
  10. Attending my 1st Summer Institute for Reconciliation, where I got to manage the social media
  11. Attending my 2nd regional conference of the American Association of Pastoral Counselors, where I got to be on the worship service planning team
  12. Researching theology, trauma, the problem of clergy-perpetrated sexual assault, and possibilities for pastoral care & counseling in light of sexual assault
  13. Being even a tiny, tangential part of the cultural dialogue around the #MeToo movement and #ChurchToo movement
  14. Sitting down in a couple of rocking chairs at church to talk with a homeless veteran
  15. Taking Eucharist to a remarkable older woman from my church who lives in a memory care facility — and who thought she was living in 1960’s Washington DC the last time I visited (while in fact it was the 2010’s in Chapel Hill, NC).
  16. Attending my first Blue Christmas service
  17. Preaching my first sermons — even if the congregation was a classroom of 12 seminarians, I had a blast!

Imagination: A Sermon

A sermon offered in preaching class…

“I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name. I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.” ~ Ephesians 3:14-21

“Jesus went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, also called the Sea of Tiberias. A large crowd kept following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick. Jesus went up the mountain and sat down there with his disciples. Now the Passover, the festival of the Jews, was near. When he looked up and saw a large crowd coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do. Philip answered him, “Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.” One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?” Jesus said, “Make the people sit down.” Now there was a great deal of grass in the place; so they sat down, about five thousand in all. Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted. When they were satisfied, he told his disciples, “Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.” So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets. When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.” ~ John 6:1-14


Let us hear these song lyrics by singer-songwriter Bethany Dillon as a prayer today:

“I need to be reminded of who I was
When I took my first steps out the door
All I said now follows me around
I’m reminded I’m not like that anymore

I uprooted and miles behind me
Are the faces and the home I love
You’ve brought to my attention
I’m slowly changing and becoming
What I wanted to stop

Isn’t that just like a finite mind
Setting out with such righteous indignation
But now I’m at your feet
Could you look at me with some imagination”

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.


If you’re a second-year M.Div. student at Duke Divinity School, you’ve likely done a fair bit of reflecting recently. Last week, we submitted our middler reviews. Some of us had a required Field Ed reflection on Friday afternoon.

As for me, I wound up reflecting at one point all the way back to when I visited Duke as a prospective student two years ago. To who I was “when I took my first steps out the door,” as we prayed a moment ago. I already had a couple friends who were current students here, so the night before my actual campus visit I met up with these friends for dinner. They spoke so naturally about their assignments and something they called precepts and used terminology that I’m still not always sure how to pronounce much less use. Before I went to bed that night, I googled the term “impostor syndrome,” read about it, and nodded. “Persistent fear of being ‘not good enough’ or being exposed as a fraud.”

But now I’m at your feet.

God, could you look at me with some imagination?

Yes, according to Paul’s epistle to the Ephesians, our God is a God of imagination. Taking something and seeing something more. A God of “breadth and length and height and depth” exceeding what even my best Vacation Bible School-style hand movements could express. You know, “deep and wide, deep and wide,” a river flowing deep and wide.

In Paul’s language, our God is a God of love “that surpasses knowledge.” A God of power “able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine.” A God of bread and wine that is impossibly the body and blood of Christ. And, in our gospel lesson today, a God of plain old loaves and fish that is a feast for all.


Imagine this story for a minute through the eyes of the disciples. It’s the end of the work day. You’re tired. You’re trying to sit by the sea, put your feet up with your co-workers, and take a break.

But your whole community and then some is showing up with questions and curiosities for your boss, Jesus. He says to serve them, to feed them. All of them.

You want to do what your supervisor says of course, but at the same time you’re thinking, well…a) I’m off the clock, Jesus. C’mon, really? b) That’s not possible, Jesus. Really?

It would be much too expensive to care for them all. Six months’ income would still barely do anything, one of the disciples says.

A kid here has five loaves of bread and two fish, another disciple says, just stating the facts, but what difference does that make?

Six months’ income. Five loaves. Two fish. Five thousand people. You’d make a pretty good finance committee, disciples, and there’s a time and place for that for sure. But what can you do with that budget? Moreover, what can Jesus do for the people?

Jesus takes that bread and fish, the most ordinary thing of the earth and most ordinary thing of the sea, and he tells the whole clamoring crowd to sit down. He gives thanks. Thanks for the real substances in his hands, the really large crowd gathered around, and maybe even the realism of the disciples. And it’s as though he too says,

But now I’m at your feet

Would you look at me with some imagination?


When Paul looked at Jesus with some imagination, his writing style seriously showed it. Good writing teachers usually warn against using too many superlatives. A preceptor might dock points from Paul’s last sentence in our passage today: “Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever.”

Abundantly. Far. More.

This is excessive wordiness, the editor in me wants to say.

This is impossible hopefulness, the skeptic in me wants to say.

And at the same time…this is an abundant Jesus, the Spirit in me has to admit.

Because Jesus not only provided for the five thousand – as if that wasn’t miracle enough – but satisfied the five thousand. Such that the disciples collected twelve baskets of leftovers. In this way, Jesus saw what little there was to work with at the outset, saw that it could be enough, and indeed saw that it could be more than enough.

Abundantly far more than enough to work even within, among, and through us today. In our imaginations and, for us as students, our educations and vocations. Seeing realistically what is and seeing hopefully what could be.

See, as I reflected last week, amidst the flurry of portfolios and Field Ed reflections, I remembered myself as a prospective student, yes, but I also imagined myself as prospective…pastor? I could sort of picture it because on a recent Sunday, serving at my Field Ed church, I had wound up serving the Communion bread – a responsibility in my Episcopal tradition that’s revered and reserved quite strictly for the ordained clergy or if absolutely necessary laypeople serving with specific clerical permission. This particular Sunday, my church had fewer clergy there than usual, so at the very last minute a priest with a panicked look on her face handed me a piece of bread and told me, “you’re it.” Like a holy game of tag.

I don’t want to be it, I thought, as I shuffled down the chancel steps toward the congregation, white robes billowing at my sides. I’m not prepared to be ‘it.’ I’m just an intern. Just a student. Just uhh…What do I say now? I thought, as a line of parishioners approached. The bread of…the body…the body of Christ, the bread of heaven.

Just a kid with five loaves and two fish.

But now I’m at your feet.

God, could you look at me with some imagination?


God, could you look at this classroom as a room of preachers? Could you look at this school as a bustling kitchen preparing loaves and fish, even if they sometimes look like papers and projects? Could you take what very little gifts we have to offer, give thanks, and distribute them to others so that people could say as the gospel writer did that “this [this Jesus Christ] is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.”

God can. And has. Will you?

Some Words on Wordlessness: A Sermon

A sermon offered in Preaching class last week…

“Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.” ~ Romans 8:25-27

This is the Word of God for the people of God.


It was sophomore year of college and my friend Alex had just sent me this text message: “I need to talk to someone. Can we meet up? Soon please.”

I knew he had been having a hard time. Several weeks prior, a classmate of ours had passed away from suicide, and Alex had been thrown into an ocean of grief, guilt, and even questions about death and the afterlife.

But that evening when I met Alex on campus he couldn’t articulate any of that. He had wanted to talk to someone…but couldn’t get the words out. We sat there for ten minutes in almost total silence.

Until eventually I said quietly, “Use your words, Alex. Just one word. Or a few. Otherwise, I don’t know how to help you.”

He said just a little. And I remember a lot. Not a lot of words. But a lot of Holy Spirit hovering somewhere around our lack of words.


When I think of this passage from Romans 8 that we’re looking at today, there’s a number of images that come to my mind.

For instance, I joked with a friend once that maybe these “sighs,” also sometimes translated as “groanings,” too deep for words are like the character Dory in the movie Finding Nemo trying to speak “whale” language. In several scenes, Dory intones her voice in all kinds of exaggerated ways. All the while, she harbors this seemingly naïve faith that the whales will understand her…and lo and behold, they do. The metaphor kind of works.

On a more serious note, I’ve heard it said on occasion that these sighs or groans represent praying in tongues or “praying in the Spirit,” understood differently by different people.

But, when I really think about this text, I see much more than “whale” language, more even than a prayer language, and more about what happens when we don’t have the language for what we’re experiencing.

Have you ever been there? Maybe sitting on your couch watching a tragedy unfold on the news – like even what’s happened in Las Vegas today – or sitting with a grieving person during your Field Ed or CPE or in your own personal life. I can’t believe it, you say, there are no words, ironically using words to describe your feeling of wordlessness because that’s simply the best that our human limitations can muster.

There are no words. Just sighs too deep for words.

I wonder, psychologically, what kinds of conditions can render us speechless in this way? What life circumstances have the power to take away our words and reduce usually articulate, even verbose people like the apostle Paul into sighs and groans?

I see at least three ways to consider the experience of speechlessness.

We can be stunned speechless, standing in awe of God or God’s creation, of sunsets or oceans or acts of kindness. We smile and let out a sigh too deep for words.

We can also be depressed into speechlessness; after all, decreased social connectivity – including communication with friends, family, and I would say God – is among the chief symptoms of clinical depression. We hide away and maybe cry and let out a sigh too deep for words.

Finally, and related to being depressed, people can be oppressed into speechlessness. Deeply, daily, this is one big sigh too deep for words.

It’s this last condition – oppression – that I’d like to focus on the most today.


Dr. Christie Cozad Neuger, a scholar of pastoral care and counseling, spends a great deal of time in her book Counseling Women describing the cultural phenomenon of “women’s loss of voice” and emphasizing the role of pastors, counselors, and hopefully all of us in “helping women come to voice.” To be sure, the struggle of voicelessness and the process of coming to voice is experienced not only by women but by all manner of minority persons whether ethnic, racial, sexual, socioeconomic, or otherwise. Neuger describes the frequency with which minorities have no voice for making narrative, cohesive sense of some of their experiences as well as the frequency with which minorities are not heard even when they do speak up and not believed even when they are heard.

In the example of a sexual assault survivor, for instance, she would statistically be very likely to experience a sense of shock, shame, or intimidation that locks her into silence during and after the initial impact – a silence around this topic lasting for hours, days, months, or even years. Difficulty identifying someone willing and able to listen. Difficulty being believed by friends, family, media, and the legal system who say that she’s exaggerating, seeking attention, or “was asking for it.”

There’s a reason that trauma studies have often used the language of “saying the unsayable” or “bearing the unbearable.”

There are no words. Just sighs too deep for words.        


This, my friends, is precisely where the Holy Spirit comes in.

The Holy Spirit who helps us in our weakness. In our sighs and groans. In the speechlessness of sublime joy, of deep depression, or of systemic oppression. And, yes, also in the wordless writer’s block of the divinity student writing theology midterms.

How exactly does the Holy Spirit help us in these times?

Well, twice just in these few verses from Romans 8, Paul repeats that the Spirit intercedes.

And what does that mean? According to Merriam Webster, to intercede means to go between, coming straight from the Latin roots “inter” meaning between and “cede” meaning go. The Holy Spirit goes between us and God. This means that the Spirit understands us and, with that understanding, speaks to God or you might even say advocates to God on our behalf. The Spirit connects me to God, you to God, us to God. The Spirit runs through our veins like a telephone wire telling God who we are, what we feel, what we think, what we need – even or perhaps especially when we can’t quite find the words to understand it or say it ourselves.

What does this mean for the oppressed? For the trauma survivor that I spoke of earlier? This means that God, through the Holy Spirit, understands her story, her personhood, her cries and sighs.

This means that God longs for us who are survivors to come to voice – not just on our own in our wordless weakness but in the power of the Spirit.

This means, too, that God longs for us who are not ourselves oppressed to come to voice on behalf of the oppressed – again not just in our wordless, shrugging, “what can I do?” kind of weakness but in the power of the Spirit.


I think of my friend Alex back in college and what I told him at the time: “Use your words. Just a few. Otherwise, I don’t know how to help you.”

For me and Alex, with our human limitations, that was true. We need language – at least in some form and to some extent – to understand one another.

But God?

God is not limited to language in the way that we are. God’s ways are “higher than our ways.”

So, with Romans 8 in mind, I imagine God saying to Alex – and to us: “Don’t worry about your words – or lack thereof. I welcome your silence. When you’re ready, I’ll welcome your words. Wherever you’re at, I welcome you. By the Holy Spirit, I know you and know how to help you.”


I used to think this passage in Romans was an excuse to stop trying when praying is kinda hard. As though it says with a shrug, “Don’t know how to pray? That’s OK. Just take it easy. Sigh. Groan. Whatever.”

But now, even in preparing for today’s sermon, I’ve realized this passage is an invitation not to stop trying but to stop trying so hard on my own, leaning on my own strength, when praying is kinda hard.

On our own? Sometimes there’s no words. Just sighs too deep for words.

But with the Spirit? Those sighs can start to shift from voices being depressed or oppressed in this world toward voices being expressed in the Spirit. May we take up this invitation and join in this liberation.


An Update and a Sermon

Confession: I haven’t written on the blog in over 2 months. Sorry, friends.

In those months, I’ve been dedicating mental energy to transitions like moving to a new apartment and starting my second year of seminary, including an internship at a church and classes on Theology, American Christianity, Preaching, and Theology & Trauma (that last one’s my favorite!). Writing-wise, I’ve published a little on The Mighty and The Mudroom. It’s funny seeing those two websites stuck together in one sentence like that — mighty and messy. Sounds about right.

But, mostly, it feels like I’ve been writing sermons for my preaching class (among other assignments for other classes). Some shorter, some longer. Some I really love, some less so.

Since that’s what I’m writing these days, sermons are mostly what I’ll be offering on the blog in the coming months — reflections on Bible passages, probably infused with my own interests in intersections of faith, mental health, and social justice.

To start off: a short homily on John 21:15-17

When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.” A second time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.” He said to him the third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep.”

Rejection. Dejection. That’s what Peter’s experiencing when we see him in this encounter with Jesus. He has seen Jesus crucified; he has denied Jesus three times; he has lost his hope and lost his way.

And dejection is what I was experiencing some months ago after some particularly difficult meetings at church – meetings that made me profoundly doubt my call to serve God. Like Peter, I felt that I had lost my hope and lost my way.

Maybe on occasion you have too.

But the thing is, in that very same state of despair I met Jesus. After those difficult, doubt-filled meetings, I went down the hall to the church’s empty, echoing sanctuary, looked up at a stained glass portrait of Jesus surrounded by a flock of sheep around his feet, and told that shepherd to lead me. Actually, I think I told Jesus something like “What the hell? I can’t. Just can’t. I’m done.” (Apparently sentences longer than two words weren’t working so well!)

c06706bd0890caf9891c0bc1843ef462To which stained-glass shepherd Jesus replied in my mind: “Do you love me, Julia?”

“Yes, Jesus, you know I love you,” I replied.

“Then feed my sheep,” Jesus said.

I let this mental exchange play out three times just as it had with Peter, growing more annoyed and more amused each time just as I imagine Peter might have felt.

“Feed my sheep,” Jesus kept saying, “whatever that looks like, whether or not there will ever be a collar around your neck or a title attached to your name. Feed them the Word of God, words of hope, acts of mercy, the body of Christ, the cup of salvation. Just feed them.”

Interestingly, in the months to come, as I wondered how to live out this command – particularly in my Divinity School context – my spiritual director would ask me month after month after month, sounding rather like Jesus questioning Peter time after time after time: “Are you still committed to this?”

With a sigh, I would say each time: “Yes, Liz, I’m still committed to this.”

“Then feed his sheep.”

It’s a frustrating redundancy. But it’s also a necessary one. God knows we need reminders of why we’re doing what we’re doing.

Reminders to feed his sheep. Feed his sheep. And feed his sheep.