When the song of the angels is stilled, when the star in the sky is gone, when the kings and princes are home, when the shepherds are back with their flocks, the work of Christmas begins:
to find the lost, to heal the broken, to feed the hungry, to release the prisoner, to rebuild the nations, to bring peace among the people, to make music in the heart.
— Howard Thurman
A few days ago Christians celebrated the Feast of the Epiphany, remembering the long-ago visit of kings from the East to a Jewish newborn. For Christians, the day marks the end of the twelve days of Christmas, and the beginning of an “ordinary time” season of the Christian year notable for its focus on Jesus’ healing and teaching ministry in first-century Palestine. In the here and now, Christians are busily packing away the candles and tinsel, the nativity scene and the Christmas decorations for another year.
It’s significant that only a few days after Epiphany, as we mark the Baptism of Our Lord, Jesus has zoomed forward in time from infancy to the beginning of his active ministry. On that day in many churches, congregations gather for baptisms of new members and the renewal of baptismal vows. Christians echo the Gospel reading for the day, proclaiming to one another God’s message of love heard from heaven at Jesus’ baptism: “You are my Beloved. In you I am well pleased.”
Standing with Jesus in the waters of baptism, we are equipped to begin what Howard Thurman called “the work of Christmas,” the work of all the baptized. For those of us who feel overwhelmed by the magnitude of that work, Br. Todd Blackham of the Society of St. John the Evangelist offers a reminder:
The Christ who was born in Mary is the Christ who was born in you at your baptism. The treasures and the promises of Mary are yours to ponder in your heart. Like Mary, they will carry us through the years when things just seem ordinary, when drudgery and monotony set in, when we are led, like Mary to the foot of the cross in our agony, our grief, and our longing. Even in the dark days of the tomb, the promises of Christ are waiting to be revealed in his resurrection.
For those of us at the beginning of a new calendar year, perhaps it’s appropriate that this week reminds us of baptism and the need to continue the work of Christmas. Our Christmas candles lit to push back the darkness of long winter nights need to burn longer than a mere twelve days. Our baptism calls us to light, in the word of Howard Thurman, “candles that will burn all year long.”
I will light candles this Christmas, Candles of joy despite all the sadness, Candles of hope where despair keeps watch, Candles of courage for fears ever present, Candles of peace for tempest-tossed days, Candles of grace to ease heavy burdens, Candles of love to inspire all my living, Candles that will burn all year long.
In early October, our local Islamic Center was burned in an arsonist’s hate attack. Between the fire and water damage, our Muslim brothers and sisters now face a rebuild and remodel of their mosque. In the meantime, they have been forced to find a new place to gather for worship.
Without a second thought our Episcopal church opened our doors and invited them to worship and pray in our large parish hall, which was appropriate for many – though not all – of their needs. Our congregation wasn’t the only one to provide support, and after several weeks the Islamic Center was able to find a larger space that would support their longer-term needs.
Our Muslim brothers and sisters were stunned by the hospitality. Many are immigrants from countries where Islam is the dominant religion, and they have felt marginalized in a nation and community where they are victims of indifference, if not outright hatred. The power of our congregation reaching out, then, was more than practical. It was highly symbolic. By stepping forward we were saying that this Christian community not only believes in a set of values, but also lives them out. We showed that Jesus’ commandment to love one another as he loves us means something. We showed that we love our neighbor as we love ourselves, and we showed that our neighbor doesn’t need to look like us or worship like us. We showed that not only do we strive for justice and peace, we also seek the dignity of every human being.
The Christian ethic that we profess in our baptismal promises reminds us that our needs and the needs of our neighbor are bound together. We are all made in the image of God. And if we truly believe that, and if we put God first, we are called to seek our neighbor. Our neighbor just might be the marginalized shepherds in the fields. Our neighbor just might be the poor carpenter and his pregnant betrothed who could find no place for them in the inn. Our neighbor just might be the lowly babe whose crib was a manger.
Thomas Mousin, an Episcopal priest in the Diocese of Maine, has created daily Keeping Advent reflections for many years. Using scriptural passages he finds Advent themes and elaborates on them with apt insight and relevance. As a subscriber I have found them consistently evocative and pertinent in my baptismal journey to Christmas.
Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”
We can spend a lot of time thinking about the life to come. Such was the question asked by the lawyer who was testing Jesus. In one sense, Jesus answered clearly, saying these are the things you need to do. He also knew that the lawyer, having asked the question, already knew the answer.
But the truth of that answer has not to do with what ensures our eternal fate, but what it means to live each moment of each day. What does it mean to love God with all our heart, all our soul, all our strength, and all our mind? And what does it mean to love our neighbor as ourselves? These are the questions we work out in the everydayness of our lives.
When Jesus commended the lawyer on his response, he did not say, “You have given the right answer; you will do this and you will have eternal life.” Instead, he said, “You have given the right answer; you will do this and you will live.” We are meant to live, today in this moment and every moment, as we love God and our neighbor as ourselves for the life we are given today.
This week, the third week in Advent, began with Gaudete Sunday, the customary day for lighting the pink candle on the Advent wreath. Often thought of as honoring Mary the mother of Jesus, the pink candle signals a “breather” at the halfway point in Advent – an opportunity to “lighten up” the intensity of our Advent observances on our way to Christmas. A time to “let it be.” That same Sunday, Dec. 12, was the traditional day for celebrating the feast of the Virgen de Guadalupe, patron saint of the Americas. La Virgen appeared to Juan Diego as a pregnant indigenous woman and spoke to him in Nahuatl, his native language.
This past Saturday, the Center for Action and Contemplation featured a meditation and practice outlined by Brian McLaren, centering around the dimension that Mary brings to Christianity.
In Luke’s telling of the birth of Jesus, God aligns with the creative feminine power of womanhood rather than the violent masculine power of statehood. The doctrine of the virgin birth, it turns out, isn’t about bypassing sex but about subverting violence. The violent power of top-down patriarchy is subverted not by counterviolence but by the creative power of pregnancy. It is through what proud men have considered “the weaker sex” that God’s true power enters and changes the world. That, it turns out, is exactly what Mary understood the messenger to be saying: [read her Magnificat, especially Luke 1:48, 51, 52, 53]. . . .
“I desire mercy, not sacrifice” (Hosea 6:, Mt 9:13 and 12:17). Again and again, through scripture and witness, God calls us to practice generativity, not violence. In our daily lives, when our work springs from our gifts and our calling, we access God’s power as co-creators. We are empowered to change the world through love.
For years I commuted to Seattle, often by bus. I found the bus drivers to be courteous and helpful – some friendly, and others, business-like. And, like anyone who faces the public daily, they encounter gracious passengers and rude, even unruly, passengers while trying to treat them respectfully.
Linda Wilson-Allen takes her role as a bus driver to a whole new level. A 2013 article in the San Francisco Chronicle describes Linda as someone who “loves the people on the bus, knows the regulars, learns their names. She will wait for them if they are late, and then make up the time on her route. She would get out of the driver’s seat of her bus to help seniors.” One day, Linda even reached out to a passenger who was lost and afraid and then invited her to join her family for Thanksgiving dinner. Her kindness has touched people so powerfully that some passengers will let another bus pass by just so they can ride with Linda.
Linda’s story inspired the pastors of Menlo Park Presbyterian Church (MPPC). Because her job can be thankless and filled with frustrations from cranky passengers to traffic jams and breakdowns, they invited her to share with the congregation how she keeps such a positive attitude. Linda told them that her work is to minister to God’s people. She begins her day with prayer – at the crack of dawn. She asks God for guidance and how God might help her bless the people she encounters on her route. She asks God to help her shine light into dark places.
After she shared her story at MPPC, senior pastor John Ortberg reminded his congregation of the wider lesson we all can learn from Linda about ministry. He said, “My patients are my ministry. My clients are my ministry. My neighborhood is my ministry. My store is my ministry. I’m just going to go through every day and reach up to Jesus so that the power of the Holy Spirit is in me all the time, and then be a part of a little community here where I have people I can know and love and care about and serve for and who can help me grow, and then I’m going out. I will go out and bless.”
Many Episcopal congregations observe the Feast of All Saints in early November by renewing their baptismal covenant, that shared set of beliefs and practices that are recited by all baptized Episcopalians. While for many All Saints Day is a remembrance of the saints who have gone before us, that renewal of vows is a reminder that baptism marks the first step for many Christians in their journey with Jesus.
We can’t start a spiritual journey on a negative foundation. If we just seek God out of fear or guilt or shame (which is often the legacy of original sin), we won’t go very far. If we start negative, we stay negative. We have to begin positive—by a wonderful experience, by something that’s larger than life, by something that dips us into the depths of our own being. That’s what the word baptism means, “to be dipped into.”
Jesus is thirty years old when his baptism happens. According to Mark’s Gospel, he hasn’t said a single thing up to now. Until we know we’re a beloved son or beloved daughter or even just beloved, we don’t have anything to say. We’re so filled with self-doubt that we have no good news for the world. In his baptism, Jesus was dipped in the unifying mystery of life and death and love. That’s where it all begins—even for him! The unique Son of God had to hear it with his own ears and then he couldn’t be stopped. Then he has plenty to say for the next three years, because he has finally found his own soul, his own identity, and his own life’s purpose….
This is the good news of God for our hurting world: we are all beloved by God. That fundamental understanding equips us to “seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving [our] neighbor as [ourselves],” and, further, “respect the dignity of every human being.” (from the Baptismal Covenant, Book of Common Prayer, p. 305) In the midst of our brokenness and blindness, the truth of that belovedness is the good news that the world hungers for. It sets us on the path that early Jesus-followers called “the Way,” the Way of Love.
…. The only purpose of the gospel, and even religion, is to communicate that one and eternal truth. Once we have that straight, nothing can stop us and no one can take it away from us, because it is given only, always, and everywhere by God—for those who will accept it freely. My only job and any preacher’s job is to try to replicate and resound that eternal message of God that initiates everything good on this earth—You are beloved children of God
In August, Luther Seminary’s “God Pause” featured devotions written by Josh Kestner ’17 M.Div. who now serves as campus pastor for University Lutheran Church and Lutheran Campus Ministry at Clemson University, Clemson, SC. Reflecting on the hymn “Built on a Rock” (ELW 652), Kestner wrote,
“…[A]n important part of having faith is living out our faith with our bodies. We navigate the world, using our five senses. And, like Jesus, we try to use our bodies to partake in the coming kingdom of God. Verse 3 reminds us of the holiness that resides in us: “Christ builds a house of living stones: we are his own habitation.” It’s a blessing. And it’s an incredible, overwhelming responsibility. Faith is more than an intellectual thing. It’s an incarnational thing. And more often than not, we forget that. Spend some time today—whether in worship, in your community, or in your own home—asking God how you are being called to live in the world. And find confidence in the fact that your body is holy, and that you can do holy work.”
How might you become more aware of God’s presence, using your senses? Through sight? Hearing? Touch? Smell? Taste? How might you savor those sensations of God with you, within you, around you? How might those first-hand experiences of God guide and ground your daily life? What holy work might God be channeling through you?
Remember Kestner’s reminder: “Your body is holy, and … you can do holy work.”
In 2016, Fletcher Lowe emailed me out of the blue. He wanted to meet Episcopalians who were going to be at the 2016 Faith and Work Summit in Dallas, and a chain of emails had led him to me and Will Messenger at the Theology of Work Project. (Will and I are both Episcopal priests, as was Fletcher.)
We exchanged phone numbers and planned to meet at the opening reception. Fletcher promptly got off of the plane and, as I recall (my saved email fails me on the details), broke his foot. He had to get right back on the plane and go home to Virginia. We never met in person.
Our near-miss, however, led him to invite me and others from TOW to get on a Zoom call (in 2016!) to connect the work of the Episcopal faith and work group Fletcher headed (then called Episcopalians on Baptismal Mission and now Partners for Baptismal Living), to more evangelical faith-and-work efforts represented by the Summit. After a couple of fruitful discussions, Fletcher invited me to join the periodic conference calls held by the Steering Committee of EBM. I would say this was an afterthought, except that I don’t think Fletcher had afterthoughts. He was a master of intentionality.
I never really agreed to be a “Steer” – as he always addressed us in his convening emails – I just never really agreed not to be. Fletcher kept emailing me and I kept showing up for the conference calls and Zoom meetings. The group was always looking for more diversity on the steering committee, and while a middle-aged middle-class white lady is not that diverse, at that point I was the only Steer younger than the boomer generation, and (while I always describe myself as doctrinally orthodox but not culturally evangelical) I had connections in more evangelical parts of the church than many. Fletcher always welcomed me warmly to our discussions.
He had a grand vision to make Episcopalians overcome our deeply ingrained clericalism, and he would do that by any possible means. He would talk to anybody. He wrote a book (more on that in a minute). He worked informally through relationship-building; he worked bureaucratically through pushing for changes to our canons (for non-Anglicans in the house, canons are essentially the rules of how we run the church.) I didn’t even realize until I read his obituary that he was the driving force behind allowing Episcopal laypeople to assist with the distribution of bread and wine at the Eucharist and to take communion to shut-ins, two things that I take completely for granted as a priest in the 21st century. In Anglicanism, you can argue about polity and theology all day long but it really matters when you start changing the liturgy. Fletcher mattered. Fletcher thought people mattered. Fletcher thought people outside the church walls mattered.
Sometime between the foot-breaking incident and the Chicago Summit in 2018, Fletcher sent me the book he’d co-authored with another Steer, Demi Prentiss: Radical Sending. I read it, and then I was supposed to review it for this blog. I never did – I had two small children and several jobs, and life (and eventually a pandemic) got in the way. (When I opened it to write this reflection, I found my 2018 room key from the Hyatt inside of it.) I do not in the least think that Fletcher would mind that I briefly reviewed his and Demi’s book while writing a eulogy for him.
It’s a very good book. It uses one of his favorite metaphors – that of the church as “base camp” which sends out hikers/disciples to transform the world – and it looks at this theologically and practically. It deals honestly with the kinds of resistance that will emerge when you try to point out that the church doesn’t just belong to the clergy. It has lots of interviews with churches who have learned to radically send their people, and with laypeople in these churches who have learned to live out their baptismal covenant in their daily life and work. It has wonderful appendices with all sorts of plug-and-play stuff for the local congregation. You should read it.
[F]or some of us, the Dismissal at the end of worship is the most important part of the Sunday Liturgy. What are the hymns and readings and prayers and sermons all about but helping “equip the saints for the work of ministry.” (Ephesians 4:12) Preparing for the launch, getting the fuel for the journey, being supplied for the hike.
Fletcher planned his own funeral, a wonderful affirmation of his faith – of the church’s faith – in Jesus Christ who empowers the faithful in their daily work, who guides us as we walk (OK, Fletcher, hike) on our daily journey, who raises the dead and promises a new heaven and a new earth. The brief note he composed for the beginning of the bulletin is worth quoting in full:
To my family and friends. Thank you for joining in this service of thanksgiving to God for the life God has given to me. Believing as I do in the Risen Lord Jesus Christ, I know that there is life after [death] and that death comes as another event in my continuing life with Christ; that, as through Baptism, I have died and risen with Christ, so my death comes as part of that Baptismal journey. Thus this memorial service speaks rather to Easter than Good Friday, to a risen Lord, not a deceased prophet.
To my interfaith friends: I welcome you to this, my last earthly hurrah and I thank you for being present. That this service is clearly from my Christian tradition should not surprise you. We have been at our best when we have most fully lived within our own Faith tradition- and through the strength of those commitments, we have joined together in a united voice for the God of justice. As always, Peace, Shalom and Salaam, Fletcher.
Peace, Fletcher. I hope someday to see you face to face when I too have hiked to the top of the mountain.
This past week I’ve heard two moms express their anguish when their young kiddos contracted Covid-19. Both have been extremely cautious over the past 18 months, practicing social-distancing and faithful masking, along with their own vaccination. Both kids were exposed at school or day-camp, in one case because masks weren’t required for children who are five-and-under, and the other because their state doesn’t require masks at all; wearing masks is even discouraged.
Both kiddos got sick. And, because it was Covid, the impact on the children’s families was substantial. Kelly’s eight-month-old baby brother had to stay with his grandparents for ten days to avoid infection. Both kids’ parents had to quarantine and work from home during isolation – that is, work and care for their sick child.
The words the moms used to describe their emotions were fear and anger. They feared for their children’s health and well-being; they feared for those who might have been unknowingly exposed to the coronavirus through their kids; and they also feared that they might end up with a breakthrough infection themselves. They were angry – “Mama bear angry” – that this had happened after they had been so careful: angry about lax attitudes that contribute to the virus’s ongoing spread and its variants.
While there are some who simply refuse to be vaccinated or to wear masks, others have legitimate reasons for fearing vaccination – such as Black Americans who know the US government history of experimenting on them without their consent or those in low-paying jobs whose employers won’t provide time off from work for them to be vaccinated or sick leave if they have a reaction. If we truly promise at Baptism to love our neighbor as Christ loves us; if we truly promise to treat people with dignity and respect – we will strive to listen to and hear their concerns, walk with them in love, and do what we can to reduce their reluctance. Our promises call for us to pray persistently to our God of abundance for wisdom, guidance, healing, and reconciliation. And as members of society, we are called to act responsibly to collectively protect the vulnerable and those who can’t yet protect themselves – our little ones like the young children of the two moms. Because our Baptismal promises call for both faith and action, every day of our lives.
The Book of Common Prayer offers this collect for Labor Day (BCP, p. 261):
Almighty God, you have so linked our lives one with another that all we do affects, for good or ill, all other lives: So guide us in the work we do, that we may do it not for self alone, but for the common good; and, as we seek a proper return for our own labor, make us mindful of the rightful aspirations of other workers, and arouse our concern forthose who are out of work; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
“All we do affects … all other lives: So guide us in [all] the work we do….” God calls us to bring God into every aspect of our daily lives, and aim to make our work holy, an expression of our relationship with God – regardless of whether our work is paid or unpaid.
How can we better remember – not just on Labor Day, but throughout the year – the work that the vast majority of people in our churches do, every day – work that is beyond the church walls? How can we equip people to work for and with God, in our work as well as in our worship? So that we are equipped to recognize
the hopeful expectation of Advent among, for instance, all those in the medical profession – doctors, orderlies, researchers, lab techs, administrators;
the joyful celebration of Christmas and Easter among, God willing, those in the field of education – students, aides, teachers, janitors, principals, parents, and presidents;
the penitence and spiritual growth of Lent within and among the people involved in the legal profession – paralegals, judges, guards, lawyers, inmates, court reporters, legislators;
the overwhelming animating spirit of Pentecost among those in performance and entertainment careers – musicians, scenic artists, writers, dancers, directors, roadies, editors.
What if we take a page from the Black Lives Matter movement and dare to “say their names” – of their vocations – in our prayers and liturgies? What if, in addition to blessing backpacks as we head back to school, we extend our blessings to all those working in schools and colleges? And on St. Francis Day, as we bless the animals, we also bless all who interact with God’s creatures – as vets or zookeepers or scientists or pet caregivers? What other times and seasons might we dedicate to celebrating the Monday through Saturday lives of God’s people?
The psalmist prays, “[O Lord,] Prosper the work of our hands; prosper our handiwork” (Ps 90:17). May our churches help us grow in our understanding that “our common life depends upon each other’s toil” (BCP, p. 134), through recognizing the ministry that each of us exercises through our daily work. And may God’s love flow into us and through our work, drawing us into Beloved Community.