on being a deacon now

I can’t remember the last time I posted a non-sermon post on this blog. I keep thinking about resurrecting this site as something more than a storage system for sermons and articles, but of course, life gets in the way. Until it doesn’t.

On March 7th, I was ordained to the transitional diaconate in my diocese. The next day, I served as a deacon for the first time, in-person, at my placement parish. Just a few days later, my seminary moved all classes online, I went on self-quarantine due to contact with a COVID case (*I am fine, as is my friend who had it), and life changed dramatically, as it has for much of the world.

What does it mean to be a deacon? What is my role? A few weeks ago, I could have told you the liturgical roles a deacon has. I could have told you that my work was to serve, to connect the church to the needs of the world, to joyfully welcome all who enter.

A few weeks ago, I had no idea that I’d be waking up on Sunday morning, putting on clericals and grabbing a cup of tea before sitting down at my computer to read the Gospel off a screen and greet congregants through chatbox conversations at virtual coffee hour. I have no idea what I’m doing. But what I do know is that some of the needs of the world are virtually the same needs my congregation has right now: social isolation, loss of employment, kids at home, and a terrifying number of screens to juggle in order to “function”.

It’s a learning curve… for all of us. From providing instructions about Zoom, to calling parishioners on the phone, to recording audio for podcasts, and video for Holy Week, this isn’t what I thought my diaconate might look like. The “tools” I need for ministry are now the same ones that I learned fooling around on Blogspot.com in high school in the late-2000s, doing HTML work-arounds and producing written and visual content every day.

Perhaps one of the people I research for described it best when she thanked me for my ministry as a deacon of technology. And that is the truest description of my ministry right now: the call to serve in this moment looks like connecting members of the church to one another, facilitating spaces for prayer and connection, patching technology together to make this new format work for as many people possible.

It’s not glamorous. It’s mostly emails, and conquering my very millennial dislike of talking on the phone. It’s “being loyal to the doctrine, discipline, and worship of Christ as this Church has received them” by following diocesan directives around everything from gathering sizes to abstention from ‘new’ or ‘innovative’ (and unauthorized) ways of doing the Eucharist. It’s making “Christ and his redemptive love known, by your word and example” even when the boundaries between home, and work, and worship meld into one unwieldy list of Zoom meetings. It’s being “faithful in prayer, and in the reading and study of the Holy Scriptures” even when that’s the hardest thing to do, when days and the concept of time no longer seem distinct.

I refuse to end this with platitudes or some pat way of describing what life and ministry is like in an unfathomable time. We aren’t ready for takeaways yet… or at least, I’m not.

But my “other duties as assigned” as a deacon of technology are showing me one thing: that sometimes waking up, getting dressed, and doing the next right thing–be it an email or a phone call or a troubleshooting session–are all good and holy things. Grace must be found in the minutia, when our national narrative is one of fear and unknowns.

And perhaps, as we enter into Holy Week where things change so very quickly… where we go from lauding Christ with palms to shouting “crucify him!”… where Christ goes from supper to torture to death and astoundingly, to life… perhaps we may find ourselves surprised by the hope of doing the next right thing. The hope of my present, and perhaps yours too, is in knowing that no one actually knows what they’re doing right now, but that we must get up and serve, and trust that the road to Golgatha leads to the tomb, which leads to Resurrection.

A blessed Holy Week to you, my friends.

Your special superpower

What is your superpower?

I’m pretty sure that we’ve all been asked this question. After all, it’s pretty common—whether you’re in school, talking with your friends about the latest Marvel movie, or participating in an icebreaker exercise at work, you’ve probably had to think about what superpower you’d pick.

Invisibility. Teleportation. Strength. Shapeshifting. Time travel. Or maybe your superpower is something else I haven’t listed. or maybe you’re actually Spiderman—I wouldn’t know.

And I think the thing that we love about superheroes is that they’re at their best when they stop hiding from whatever superpower they have, and start using it.

That’s always the best part of the movie, right?? When Thor or Wonderwoman or Dr. Strange suddenly realize that, oh, I know how to fix this. That their superpowers will actually make a difference.

So I want to suggest that the writer of today’s Psalm definitely had a superpower. And the key to this superpower is in verse nine, where they say that “Surely his salvation is at hand for those who fear him…”

“Surely his salvation is at hand for those who fear him…”

Surely. Surely is a weird word, right? It’s an adverb, which, means that it’s modifying the verb “to be”. The Psalmist is sure that God’s salvation IS. The Psalmist is sure that God’s salvation EXISTS.

Lexico describes surely as a word that is “used to emphasize the speaker’s firm belief that what they are saying is true and… their surprise that there is any doubt of this.” It means that you really believe what you’re saying is true.

Being sure is a superpower, and the Psalmist definitely has it. In the earlier part of Psalm 85 that we didn’t read today, they begin by reciting what God has done… to God!

“Lord, you were favorable to your land”

“You pardoned all their sin”

“Restore us again, O God of our salvation”

“Will you not revive us again?”

“Show us your steadfast love, and grant us your salvation”

God, you were awesome…. and you should do that again.

The Psalmist is so sure about who God is, and what God does, that they have the tenacity, the bravery, to demand that God make things good again.

“Surely his salvation is at hand for those who fear him”

“Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet”

“The Lord will give what is good”

The Psalmist’s superpower is being sure about who God is, is knowing the TRUTH about God. That God has been good to us in the past, and that God CAN and WILL be good to us now, and in the future.

That’s a lot of confidence to have in God. So yes, it is a superpower, but I think that it’s a superpower that we can claim today.

When we have a really bad day in school, or a really bad week at work.

When our faith is more questions than answers.

When all we want to do is ask, with the Psalmist, “Will you be angry with us forever?” Will things ever go right?

Perhaps we can stop, and remember our superpower: maybe we don’t know for sure what will happen in the future, but we know the truth about who God has been for us in the past.

We can name the deeds of God, from creation to crucifixion to right now, and say that yes, Lord, “you were favorable to your land”. “SURELY his salvation is at hand”, and that SURELY “The Lord will give what is good”.

So next time you need a superpower, remember this: that you too know the truth about God.

That God is good, and “the Lord will give what is good” to his people, now and in the age to come. May this truth set us free to be doers and witnesses of Christ’s work in the world.

Preached on 2/20/20, on Psalm 85, for the Thursday Night Live Service at Virginia Theological Seminary

To grow a garden

When I was in England a few weeks ago, I started watching a TV show that introduced me to a brand new world… the world of English gardening. It’s called “Small Spaces, Big Dreams”, and is hosted by Monty Don, who is so famous that he’s basically the Oprah of BBC gardening shows. The title sort of gives it away—in each episode, Monty coaches an ordinary person through designing their own garden in a tiny backyard or plot.

I’m pleased to say that after watching three whole seasons of this fantastic show, I’ve learned a few things.

First of all, it doesn’t matter how many resources you have. You’ve got to have a plan that’s realistic. You can’t plant desert plants in a swamp, and you can’t spend all your time digging—at some point, you’re going to have to put something in the ground and wait for it to grow.

Secondly, it’s probably going to work best if you’re friends with a few sturdy folks who don’t mind helping out with the planning or digging. Two, or four, or five, are better than one, right?

Thirdly, the amount of money that you pour into the garden won’t make a difference if you don’t have realistic plans and supportive friends. Money can only go so far towards making your garden personal and meaningful.

So in order to build your very own dream garden, we need three things: we need a plan, we need friends, and we need more meaning than money can supply.

Today’s Gospel is a hard one to hear. This part of the Sermon on the Mount, the one that we love to hear the beginning of: blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are those who mourn, blessed are the meek. But in Matthew, the Sermon on the Mount actually continues on for three chapters, and includes today’s passage.

Jesus takes some of the Ten Commandments, and other parts of Jewish teaching at the time, and instead of saying that the commandments don’t matter, he says, that yes, they do matter, and here’s how to live into them.

There’s a common theme for how to go about living into these commandments. Not only is it about the ACTION that you do or don’t do, but it’s also about what you think.

Yes, don’t commit murder, but just walking around feeling like you want to murder someone isn’t good for you or that person either.

Offering a gift to God won’t be an adequate substitute for the work of making peace with my brother or sister or friend or enemy.

What Jesus says about the law is this: that the bare minimum is not okay. In order to live with each other, we have to do more than just check boxes. The work of following Christ requires us to be all in, not just operating on technicalities.

If God was a gardener, which our 1 Corinthians reading suggests, you might say that this ideal of how we live together in peace and dignity is, in fact, the master plan. It is the plan that God conceived for humanity in the Garden of Eden, when the world was still echoing God’s voice speaking it into being. It is the plan that Jesus wanted to tell a world that was and still is obsessed with technicalities. How little can we do, or how badly can we act, and it still be “legal”, or “moral”?

If you read the news these days, I’m not sure we’ve changed a whole lot. We still want to know how to be “good” with the least amount of effort. But the master plan is a bigger dream than that, a dream that imagines a future where we will be reconciled with each other, where we will live faithfully, where murder, and lawsuits and divorce won’t be necessary because we will have learned to see each other with God’s eyes.

I don’t know about you, but this master plan seems a bit daunting to me. On a good day, I can only remember even one of these instructions, and most of the time, Jesus’ teachings from our Gospel lesson don’t actually seem that helpful.

Take, for example the teaching on divorce.

“It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.”

What do we do with that? How can we possibly follow a teaching that is far more suited for the original Biblical context, where men controlled the relationship, and where divorce would absolutely impoverish a woman? It seems to make sense in that context: Jesus is admonishing the men in the audience not to abuse their power in the relationship, to do more than the bare minimum.

But knowing that context doesn’t do much for us, does it? For a lot of us who have experienced divorce in the 21st century, it’s much more complicated than that.

When my parents were going through the divorce process, I remember feeling a profound sense of relief. Thank goodness they’ve finally realized that it’s not going to work. In my parents’ case, both of them did as much as they could to make it work. But sometimes, through unequal effort, abuse, or a multitude of other reasons, a relationship just doesn’t work. And perhaps you’ve experienced this in your own family, or with friends, where you realize that ultimately, the healthiest decision is to separate.

This takes us back to the second step for creating our dream garden—sometimes, we need to find a friend, or two, or five. And perhaps, the person that we started the journey with will not be the person to help us plant, or water or prune the garden. In the Gospel’s ideal world, we would spend the whole journey with the friend or partner we started with. But sometimes, the digging is too much. And so we need to find another friend, another community, another group of people to support us as we aspire to the ideal–God’s master plan.

And this brings us to the final piece of gardening advice in this sermon: that you can’t substitute money or possessions for the hard work that ultimately makes a garden beautiful and meaningful. As the gospel says, you can’t substitute a gift at the altar for reconciliation with others. You can’t let a judge decide how reconciliation will happen between you and a friend.

This is the world that we want to live in, where we reconcile with one another, where we prioritize our relationships with others over our money or success. This is the world that we commit to working towards every time we renew our baptismal vows, whenever we say that we will “strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being”.

And I love this honesty in the baptismal vows, because they don’t say that there is already justice and peace and respect among all people.

Instead, we promise to strive for it. We promise to start again and again whenever things don’t work out. We just promise to keep trying to work towards God’s master plan.

“What then is Apollos? What is Paul?… I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth….”

“For we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building.” We are working in a great big garden, with a Gardener whose plan is bigger than ourselves, than our country, than our moment in human history. So, grab a friend, or two, or five, and let’s keep striving towards a more just, faithful, and peaceful world as we water our corner of this great big garden.

Audio Recording: Preached at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Waldorf, 2/16/20

A new name

When I was a child, I spent a lot of time in the truck with my dad, driving to and fro as we did errands for the farm. I don’t remember much of what we actually talked about on those long drives, but one of the few things I remember is a question that only an eight year old would ask… one of those questions that those of you who are parents probably think about with dread.

“Dad”, I said, “if I was named something other than Amanda, would I still be me?”

If I didn’t have my name, would I still be me?

Now, I have no memory of what my dad said in response. It was probably some attempt to answer what is an actually an impossible question. (sorry, Dad)

If I didn’t have my name, would I still be me? If you didn’t have your name, would you still be you?

Names are important. Just think about that moment when you see the person who is dearest to you in the world after a long absence, that moment when they say your name: so full of joy, of love, of warmth. When someone we love says our name like that, it is a feeling, at least in my experience, that I’m fully known by that person. Speaking my name feels like an acknowledgement that they accept and love me for who I am.

And despite that old rhyme about sticks and stones, words hurt. Names can hurt. Anyone who’s ever been called a horrible nickname by a bully on the playground knows what it’s like to have someone mess with *who we are*, a little piece of ourselves, our identity.

Names matter. What we call people, matters. A name can be weaponized through anger, or it can become the most beautiful music when said by someone we love. Names matter in the Bible too—just a few weeks ago in Advent, we spent an entire Gospel lesson hearing names upon names upon names: Jesus’ genealogy.  

Names matter. And so in Isaiah, we find God promising a new name to a sad and broken land.

“For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent,

and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest,

until her vindication shines out like the dawn,

and her salvation like a burning torch.

The nations shall see your vindication,

and all the kings your glory;

and you shall be called by a new name

that the mouth of the Lord will give.

You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the Lord,

and a royal diadem in the hand of your God.”

Isaiah is a book of the Bible where we find the Israelites struggling with their identity. They’ve been wandering away from God for so long that they don’t know how to be God’s people anymore. The readings from this book alternate between God expressing anger at Israel’s unfaithfulness on the one hand, and the promises God makes that say there will be hope and life at the end of all this war and evil.

And all of this promise, this hope for the future, is symbolized by a new name.

“you shall be called by a new name

that the mouth of the Lord will give”

Isaiah is not the only reading this morning that talks about names. The gospel, that famous passage from the first chapter of John, is also about new names. In it, the Word of God, the son of God, takes on a new name.

“the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”

The Word became flesh and took on a new name, the name of Jesus Christ.

Christ is, as Paul says, born under the law to redeem those under the law. Jesus Christ, born in a manger, the redeemer of Bethlehem, Nazareth and Calvary.[1] Jesus Christ, who took on a new name so that you and I might know him, love him, and adore him.

So as I conclude, I’d like to return to the question that we started with:

If I didn’t have my name, would I still be me? If you didn’t have your name, would you still be you?

After reading today’s lessons, what I would tell my childhood self is this: the new name which you might be called to: a new vocation, a new orientation—a new way of following God in this world, is not changing your identity. I will still be me. You will still be you. The new name to which we are called is more “us” than we could even imagine.

A new name is the fulfillment of promises hoped for. God has already called us by a new name: his people. And perhaps when God calls us by a new name, (a new call, a new way of being in the world), we will recognize it as the fulfillment of everything we’ve ever hoped for—all of God’s promises to remake and redeem us—fulfilled in the Christ who took on a new name for all of us.

As we approach the beginning of the new year, may we remember that regardless of what resolution we take on, God is always calling us by a new name, drawing us ever closer to himself, and the promise of a world renewed. Will you answer?

[1] See this lovely sermon for reference: https://www.ssje.org/2019/12/24/the-poverty-of-bethlehem-nazareth-calvary-br-james-koester/

Sermon preached on 12/29/19 at Little Fork Church, Rixeyville, VA.