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?

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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.

 

Nevertheless She Persisted

In January she watched as women’s marches took over downtowns around the world, complete with pink pussy hats and witty posters and various sorts of ideological disagreements.

In February she started hearing the catch phrase, based on Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s experience of being silenced mid-speech: “She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless she persisted.

She felt sad and slightly sick at the reality of it all. The reeling, repressive, recurrent reality that she — and, yes, so many shes — had also been warned, given an explanation, and pushed into a place of persistence.    

il_340x270-1139220768_r5dpIn March someone sweetly offered her a gray t-shirt with “nevertheless she persisted” emblazoned on it in some cool typography.

She felt sad and slightly silenced at the assumption of it all. The assumption that persistence could be explained with a t-shirt. That the pain of a person — an entire people group in fact — could be summarized with a slogan. Perhaps especially the assumption that it was empowering to quote a past tense catchphrase to someone engaged in present-tense struggle.     

In April her grandmother suddenly passed away a few days before final exams were to take place.

In May she spent some time focused on a funeral and family and friendships, then some more time focused on final exams and papers — while fighting through a couple sicknesses and surprises along the way.

Most mornings it was unusually hard to get out of bed. Most weeks her therapist asked if she still wanted to keep going (as opposed to quitting or taking a leave of absence) on the career path and life path she was on. After a long pause and deep breath, she said “yes” every time.

Because that’s what persistence looks like, friends. It looks like Senator Warren publicly standing her ground. But it also, probably more often, looks like you and me day after day just getting out of bed and taking deep breaths and saying “yes.”

As you may have guessed by now, this is my story I’m telling. The story of my second semester of seminary to be exact.

I don’t share it to complain that things were hard, though sometimes they were. And I don’t share it to boast that I got through it, though it seems I did.

I share my story to say that persistence takes a lot longer than 140 characters. It’s harder than a hashtag, more tenuous than a t-shirt, more complex than a catchphrase. So complex that, when I took a seminar on “nurturing leaders for resilience” last week, we defined resilience as the capacity to rebound from shocks or setbacks, calling upon and/or creating a core of physical, psychological, social, and spiritual resources.

So, psychologically speaking, persistence looks not only like a muscular marathon runner (though I’m sure they’re very persistent indeed) but like a relay race of resources.

It looks like therapists, friends, family, self-care, self-talk, a little chocolate, and a lot of choosing to say “yes.”

It looks sometimes like triumphant endings and more often like a long series of brave beginnings. As St. Benedict has been attributed with saying: Always we begin again.

bba3b09aba78d5b327e5de0239e69c60Call me a monk, but I like those ancient four words (always we begin again) much more than the modern three (nevertheless she persisted).

For months I took quiet offense at the over-simplicity of the “nevertheless she persisted” line. Now I just want to at least amend the phrase, to recognize the duration and difficulty involved in persistence. I want to say “nevertheless she is persisting” or “nevertheless she will persist” or maybe “nevertheless we will persist.”

I will. We will.

Because persistence is never over. And persistence is never a solo sport. It has to be an always. It has to be an all of us.

Always. We. Begin. Again.

Side Effects of a Seminary Semester

img_3414I’ve been drafting this one for about 4 months. It’s a chronicle of the “side effects” experienced over the course of my first semester of seminary – those unexpected, sometimes humorous, sometimes meaningful things that start happening and keep happening whether you like it or not.

So, if you ever start seminary, maybe watch out for the following:

1. Humility. (Actually, this one often starts as impostor syndrome or self-doubt. But, by the time symptoms 7 and 8 set in, this can manifest as humility.) As early as orientation, I would look at the course catalog and think: I can’t possibly learn even 1% of the things taught here. I used to think I was smart, used to be accustomed to friends looking to me as something of a miniature “expert” on religious matters. Now, the thought of expertise – the thought of “mastering divinity” as my Master of Divinity degree implies I’m doing – makes me laugh. Now, I marvel at the expanse of theology, biblical studies, ethics, history, languages, spirituality, and pastoral care that exists and suppose I’m the smallest speck compared to that expanse. Now, I think maybe it would be smart to be humble about how little of the expanse I will actually “master” (even while working to master what meager portion I can).

2. Anger. By this, I mean a sometimes-righteous, sometimes-raging anger at the way churches, communities, and individuals have engaged narrowly and unjustly (often in the name of religion) throughout the world and throughout history with issues of gender, sexuality, race, poverty, abuse, mental illness, disabilities, politics, war, slavery, mass incarceration, biblical interpretation (clobber verses, anyone?), missiology (crusades, anyone?), and more. Yes, those are all topics I have crossed paths with just in my first semester – nay, first month – of seminary. Yes, it can be overwhelming. This quotation gives me hope: 

“Hope has two beautiful daughters; their names are Anger and Courage. Anger at the way things are, and Courage to see that they do not remain as they are.” – St. Augustine

3. Questions. Why? What for? What does that word mean? Better yet, what does that word mean in Greek? My favorite is when I bump into a friend and they say “Hey, quick question: What do Episcopalians believe about Eucharist?” In most of life, these are not “quick questions.” In seminary, apparently these are normal.

4. The inability to answer questions simply. I increasingly hear questions in gray rather than black-and-white, thinking quickly of at least two ways to approach the question (maybe an Old Covenant approach and New Covenant approach, Protestant approach and Catholic approach, literal and metaphorical, critical and devotional). I don’t even mean to, but I’m getting trained to. For instance, a few weeks into the semester, a friend asked casually “How’s life?” I contemplated his query for a second and said, “Hmm how’s life? That’s a deep question. Can we clarify our definition of the meaning and scope of the term ‘life’? Do we mean my life right now or life in general?”

5. The inability to listen to religious music in the same way ever again. I hear songs on Christian radio or in worship services and little sirens go off in my head screaming of patriarchal language, out-of-context biblical references, or downright heresy.

6. Speaking in tongues. By this, I mean using Greek, Hebrew, and Latin right and left (but, yes, if you also wind up speaking in tongues in other ways I suppose I can analyze the history, theology, and spirituality of that). I’m not even taking a biblical language this semester, and I wrote a paper including terms like imago dei, facere quod in se est, oikonomia, kenosis, and epectasy as if that was perfectly normal.

7. Prayer. For me, every day begins with morning prayer with the Anglican/Episcopal House of Studies. Most days close with evening prayer. Most classes open with prayer – whether moments of silence, psalms, prayers of the saints, or the prayers of Professor Smith. During finals, I stopped in the hall to pray with an anxious friend one day, and then my housemate and I stopped in a parking lot to talk and pray with a homeless woman another day.

“Study that does not finally result in prayer is a dishonesty for us.” – St. Benedict   

8. Friendship. Truly, when dealing with all the above side effects, I couldn’t possibly do it alone. The people with whom I’ve been studying, praying, conversing, and eating become inherently connected to me and I to them. It is beautiful.

“We are incomplete in ourselves. We want to share our lives with others both to expand our hearts and to receive help because of our smallness of heart.” – St. Thomas Aquinas

 

 

 

 

Discipleship According to Sara Bareilles

altar-torch-7-8-top“I used to be scared of fire,” I said calmly, as a thin flame danced before my face.

I was serving as an acolyte maybe a month into my time at divinity school, recruited at the last minute to help with a chapel service. The kind of recruitment that starts with a simple favor (carry a candle) and spirals into several additional tasks like “Oh, by the way, can you also do the Scripture reading? … Oh and be a chalice bearer? … And arrive an hour early so we can go over things?” (Welcome to ministry life, I suppose.)

“Uhh, are you gonna be OK?” the other acolyte asked nervously, eyeing my fire-lit face.

With a smile and shrug, I replied in the way in which we affirm our baptismal vows: “I will, with God’s help.”

I will, with God’s help.

This has become a mantra for the new tasks I’m invited to attempt these days — tasks which can appear humanly impossible but are, in fact, divinely possible.

Or, in the words of Sara Bareilles’ hit song “I Choose You,” which “coincidentally” came on the car radio the day of that chapel service both as I drove to school and as I left, running through my head like a helpful earworm throughout the day:

“I am under-prepared, but I am willing.”

I am under-prepared to figure out vesting in vestments and processing down aisles, assisting at the altar and knowing the terminology (good Lord, the terminology) for anything that goes on and around the altar. I am under-prepared to lead morning prayer — much less the chanted morning prayer that I managed to lead a couple weeks ago. I am under-prepared to write most of the papers I am writing, because there is simply not time to develop expertise or even understanding of a topic in the one week or even one day allotted to that topic in class.

But, somehow, I am willing.

I’m quite certain Sara Bareilles was not thinking of Christian discipleship when she composed “I Choose You” (in fact, I’ve heard she was writing about marriage, which is also a lovely way to interpret the song). But, when I hear this song on the radio, I can’t help but think of the calling of Jesus’ first disciples, recorded for instance in Matthew 4:18-22:

As he [Jesus] walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon who is called Peter and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea; for they were fishermen. And he said to them, ‘Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.’ Immediately they left their nets and followed him. And going on from there he saw two other brothers, James the son of Zeb′edee and John his brother, in the boat with Zeb′edee their father, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.”

A call from God. And a “yes” from humankind.

God who doesn’t mind in the least — in fact, perhaps intends — that we be under-prepared for the work to which we’re invited. And humankind who needs only to be willing.