Do not be anxious about earthly things

“Grant us, Lord, not to be anxious about earthly things, but to love things heavenly; and even now, while we are placed among things that are passing away, to hold fast to those that shall endure”

Grant us, Lord, not to be anxious about earthly things.

This has always been one of my favorite collects, bursting with references to the ‘lilies of the field’ passage in Matthew and Luke, where Jesus says “do not worry about your life”.

But reading this admonition, to ‘not be anxious about earthly things’, feels different now, now when we are in the midst of so many things to be anxious about. Saying do ‘not be anxious about earthly things’ in the middle of a pandemic and a climate crisis feels like holding an umbrella in the middle of a hurricane, or a tiny flickering candle in a dark cave.

How can we not be anxious about earthly things? How can we not be anxious when the very earth that we live on is quaking under our feet, when the very air that we breathe is grey with ash and smoke? How can we not be anxious, living in a world that feels neither peaceful nor secure nor predictable?

This same sense of anxiety is where we find ourselves in the book of Exodus. The Israelites, wandering in the desert, are anxious. There’s no water, no food, just the hot desert sand and a march to a home that they’ve never seen.

“If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt”, at least we had food to eat then. “If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt”, because dying in slavery is, at least, a known quantity. It’s not the terror and trepidation and all-consuming anxiety of a new and uncertain world.

“Do not be anxious about earthly things” seems like the wrong thing to say to a group of anxious, hungry, exhausted people.

“Do not be anxious about earthly things” seems like the wrong thing to say to people who are suffering from, dying from, a pandemic.

“Do not be anxious about earthly things” seems like the wrong thing to say to friends who are evacuating their homes, who are fleeing wildfires caused by climate change.

“Do not be anxious about earthly things” really just seems like the wrong thing to say.

As perhaps some of you know, I grew up on a small family farm. And as my family sought to understand the why of local agrarianism, the why of what we did for a living, we continually turned to the works of Wendell Berry. A poet, essayist, and novelist of much acclaim, Berry spends much time in his work reflecting upon the relationship between humanity and creation, between people and the land.

And as we consider the question of anxiety about our world, Berry is, perhaps unsurprisingly, insightful. In an essay called “Leaving the Future Behind”, he talks about the debilitating effect that national and international climate change reporting has on individuals’ and communities’ ability to effectively respond. In other words, a constant barrage of information about huge issues we can’t immediately solve in like fashion, tends to leave us feeling as if we can do nothing.

He writes that the fear and guilt induced by these stories “can become a major distraction, not only from better ways of problem solving and better ways of thinking and working, but also from the local causes of climate change—which has, after all, only local causes.”(1)

This isn’t to say that these big fears, these anxieties, this present, and these predictions for the future aren’t real. They are real, or in the case of anxiety, are real reactions to things we experience. But as we ponder what it means to not be anxious about earthly things, Berry offers us a lens through which we can see the problem anew.

We can’t solve climate change. We can’t take better care of the creation we have been entrusted with without a multitude of individuals and communities taking action within their local sphere of influence. Like using a hammer on a screw, or a square peg in a round hole, our gifts and God-given talents are only useful to us and our world when we use them where they’re meant to be used.

God’s response to the anxiety and the future-focused Israelites reminds us of the limitations of our own anxiety and fear. God says—okay, yes, I hear you. You are afraid of the future. You would rather have died in Egypt. Fine. But you’re hungry. Let’s fix that first.

The Israelites, in their fear and anxiety, are attempting to see the whole scope of the problem. They’re thinking about the past and present and future and saying, ‘if only it had happened this way’. They are trying to make a statement from a bird’s eye perspective, from, if you will, God’s perspective. This is the same problem that the first vineyard workers run into in our Gospel lesson, as they attempt to play the role of God in deciding which wages are just, and which are not.

And in each of these passages, God reminds us that we are not actually seeing things from God’s perspective. The Israelites cannot see the promised land laid before them, cannot see the manna which will soon feed them.

But God can.

The first vineyard workers cannot see a world where pay is not based on merit, but on showing up and doing your part, however small.

But God can.

We cannot see the end of this pandemic, cannot see a world of justice and equality, cannot see a world in which creation is cared for as it should be.

But we have faith that God can.

Our call then, is two-fold. First, we must expand our imagination past the fear and anxiety that dominates our headlines and news cycles, reminding ourselves that fire and famine and pestilence are a real part of the story, but not the whole story. When we remind ourselves that we do not see from God’s perspective, we, as Wendell Berry writes, withdraw ‘our.. speculative, wishful, and fearful claims upon the future, [and we] significantly and properly reduce the circumstance or context within which we live and think’.

Because, paradoxically, the second part of our call is to go smaller. To not be incapacitated by our attempts to save the whole world, but to work within our corner of it. In doing this, we are, as Berry says, placed ‘within our right definition, our right limits, as earthly creatures and human beings… only within these limits that we can think practically, usefully, and so with hope, of our history, of what we have been and who we are, of our sustaining connections and relationships’. Only by going smaller, can we do the work that must be done.

So in the face of crisis, in a world and a planet which so desperately needs all of our diligence, care and compassion, what does ‘smaller’ look like?

In the much-beloved film The Princess Bride, our three heroes Wesley, Fezzik, and Indigo sit on top of a castle wall, facing a list of impossible tasks, which include fighting sixty men at the gate in order to then break up the prince’s wedding and exact revenge upon the evil Count Rugen, etc, etc. After listing what must be done, Wesley, who has just been revived from death and can’t even hold his head up straight, asks, ‘what are our liabilities’ and ‘what are our assets’.

What are our liabilities? What is the problem we’re responding to in our community? What’s at stake? What’s in the way of a solution? What are the things we need to learn to do this work well? Where do we need to be honest about our past shortcomings in order to move forward?

What are our assets? Who among us knows about, or is already working on this problem in our community, be it hunger or racism or creation care? Who do we partner with through Faith in Action, or who might we partner with in the future? Which of our individual and community gifts is the right one for this moment?

And just as our three heroes used these questions to literally storm a castle and save the princess, we too can ask these questions to restore our focus. To imagine a world that is God’s, and to see ourselves within our right limits, to focus on our corner of this good earth.

So grant us, Lord, not to be anxious about earthly things, these fears and anxieties that are too big for us alone, but to love things heavenly—your story, and our joyfully-limited human place in it, that we may care for God’s creation with holiness and reverence, wherever we are planted, wherever we are called to serve.

(1) Berry, Wendell. “Leaving the Future Behind” The Art of Loading Brush: New Agrarian Writings. Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2017. 70-72.

Preached at The Chapel of the Cross, Chapel Hill, 16th Sunday after Pentecost 2020.

Glory Yet to Be (sermon for the feast of the transfiguration)

A few weeks ago in a meeting, I made a slightly snarky comment about the fact that at least 50% of transfiguration sermons are about ‘mountaintop experiences’. And so, in a true moment of poetic justice, I find myself offering today’s homily, on the Feast of the Transfiguration.

And we all know the story so well, don’t we? Jesus and the disciples on a mountain. Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus. Peter saying yet another foolish thing. The voice of God, saying listen.

And even though our moments apart, our experiences of glory, may not consist of witnessing Jesus talking with Moses and Elijah, we still do have them: these moments when everything feels impossibly real, when we glimpse the world, for a moment, through God’s eyes.

We seek these experiences, I think, these moments completely outside of ourselves. Whether you are hiking part of the Appalachian Trail or the Camino de Santiago, going on vacation to somewhere new or dearly beloved, spending a few days on quiet retreat, or perhaps just finding refuge in an early morning walk or bike ride, we feel more whole, more ourselves, once we can get some distance from our constant, endless monologue of internal thoughts.

We, like the disciples, seek glory—a moment so life-altering that it transforms us.

But there is a tension, I think, in the glory that we seek, this moment of perspective.

You see, it is very easy for me to imagine what kind of perspective, what kind of glory, what kind of transformation I am seeking. I’m seeking to recreate a particular experience of retreat or enlightenment that I have experienced before, or I’m looking to recreate someone else’s glory. I’m looking for a moment just like Peter’s, seeing Jesus and Moses and Elisha atop a mountain, and knowing for certain that I’m following the right messiah.

See, that’s the thing about Peter, atop this mountain, confronted with glory. He sees the glory of God, shown in these three figures, and says, yes, I know what this is. Jesus, on par with Moses and Elijah, two of the greatest prophets and law-givers in Israel’s history, memorialized in centuries upon centuries of Jewish imagination and writings. “I know what this is”, he says. “This is history, coming to life. This is the glory of Israel past, the prophets of the past coming to signify the future of Israel present. Let us build three booths, sir, to memorialize this moment, the moment when the past became our present, the moment foretelling the return to normal, the return to Israel as we know it should be.”

Peter, upon being confronted with the glory of the Father, knows it immediately as the glory of the past, the glory that was. He knows it as such because that is the glory that he wants: Israel’s success, and power, enshrined in memory, becoming Israel’s present.

It is not wrong, this drawing from the past, from memory, to teach us our expectations of glory. This is, after all, the great gift of scripture, of church history, of thousands of teachers who remind us of the heavenly glory that was.

But I want to suggest that by limiting the glory of God to the past, to specific manifestations that we know by heart, or have even experienced, we limit our own ability to experience the glory of God that is yet to be.

Peter, so enthralled with the glory that was, does not realize that Jesus and Moses and Elijah are discussing the glory that will be. Peter, prepared for the glory of the past and Israel’s political prosperity, cannot even conceive of a future where God’s glory is expressed, not in the overthrow of the Romans, but in the suffering, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus. Peter cannot imagine the glory that is to come, the redemption of the world from the Fall, the harrowing of Hell, eternal salvation.

So on this Feast of the Transfiguration, I invite you—us—not to the mountaintop experiences you know, not to the glory you expect, not to a return to normal, whatever that is, but to the glory of God which is before us, the future which has yet to be. It may not feel like glory. There may be suffering and pain and death as we wait for its appearing. But it is in this glory to come, now known, that Christ redeemed and saved the world, and us. As we pray ‘come Lord Jesus’, as we pray for deliverance from the injustice and ‘disquietude of this world’, as we wait for the glory that is yet to come, may we live in hope that the transfiguration of ourselves and our world, will be greater than we can ever ask, or imagine.

What Is Your Name? (sermon)

One of the things that happens, at least for me and maybe you too, is that there are some stories in the bible that are so familiar that you can recite them in your sleep. Noah and the ark, the exodus, Jesus feeding the five thousand with two loaves of bread and two fish. And one of the things that happens when I am so familiar with a story is that I stop actually reading the words on the page, because I think I know what it says.

So, inevitably, when I finally spend time reading the actual words on the page, I almost always find something surprising, that I haven’t noticed before. And this week’s surprise came in that story we all know so well—Jacob wrestling with God.

Except, we don’t know at the beginning of the story that it is God—Jacob only says afterwards that he has seen God and lived. All it says at the beginning of the reading is that this is a man.

We don’t know who he is, or how he got there, or why they’re even wrestling in the first place. Did this man sneak up on Jacob and tackle him? Did he say something to start a fight? Did Jacob pick a fight, as he’s been known to do? Genesis just says that “Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak”—matter-of-fact, like this is the most normal thing in the world. 

This is, not, normal.

In fact, it seems like Jacob spends the entire story doing things, and asking questions in the wrong order.

Jacob wrestles until daybreak with a man he doesn’t know, and then is wounded. He clings onto him, and refuses to let go until the unknown stranger blesses him. It’s only AFTER the blessing, where he receives a NEW NAME that Jacob bothers to ask the most basic of questions:

Please tell me your name. What is your name?

Hold on.

SURELY this question, this last question is the one that would have been plaguing Jacob’s mind all night: who is this? What is your name? Are you an angel? A demon? A human of extraordinary strength? God? And if you are any or all of them, are you my friend or my enemy?

What is your name?

What’s clear in this moment is that Jacob wants something out of this stranger. Whether he is an enemy or ally, friend or foe, Jacob wants a blessing, or perhaps even a curse or just a declaration of why all this is happening. Why are you keeping me up all night, exhausted, on the riverbank? Why are we even wrestling if I don’t know who you are and what you want?

He refuses to stop fighting, to stop holding onto this stranger, clinging onto him, in exchange for a new name.

A blessing, a new name.

Perhaps Jacob has realized, in this night of wrestling, that this stranger has the power to change his life. Perhaps he thinks this unknown man on the riverbank is his last hope for redemption before an encounter with Esau, his brother—an encounter which Jacob expects will go badly. Perhaps dying in an encounter with a stranger is better than facing up to the names that he’s been known as before.

Jacob the usurper

Jacob the thief

Jacob the younger son

Jacob the one never quite in the spotlight, the one who cooks while his brother hunts

Jacob the lawbreaker

Jacob the one who can’t quite do anything right

Jacob who doesn’t say the right things, doesn’t impress the right people

Jacob who spends the whole night wrestling with an unknown stranger, for no particular reason.

Jacob who only asks this stranger’s name after hours of breathless panting, covered in mud and sweat. Who only asks who this stranger is after being wounded, after desperately clinging onto him to ask for a blessing.

Jacob who asks for a blessing from a person who has wounded him, kept him up all night, whose name he does not know.

What is your name?

And at the outset, it doesn’t feel like we have a lot in common with Jacob. Surely we would never fight with someone without knowing who they are. Surely we would have the sense to know when to give up, when to let it go. Surely asking who this person is would be our first question, rather than our last one.

But the more I think about it, the more I wonder about all those times in my life, and perhaps yours too, where I wrestle with a thought, or a question of what I should do in particular situation. We wrestle with questions of ethics: is it “right” to do this thing, or that thing? We wrestle with questions of relationship: will I hurt my friend if I say this truthful statement? Perhaps, we are wrestling now, more than usual: we are grappling with the life and death implications of going to the store or meeting a friend. We are sitting with isolation and loneliness, or for those families among us, no time to be alone at all. We are asking questions about our complicity in the oppression of people who don’t look or act like us. We are watching as many of our country’s leaders refuse to adopt laws and policies which would save lives, and wondering what we can possibly do now.

What makes all this more difficult is that some of these questions aren’t easy to answer, and for those answers we feel like we have, putting them into action results in a whole new set of difficult choices and decisions. If I go to a protest, or take direct action against racism and white supremacy, will I get sick from COVID? If I spend time with a friend to alleviate my loneliness and sense of isolation, even taking the proper precautions, there’s still a chance that one of us could get sick—am I willing to take that risk? If I stay home and self-isolate, is there really anything useful I can do to push back against racism and oppression by those in positions of power?

Perhaps, like Jacob, we feel that we are wrestling in the dark, coated in mud on the riverbank, unable to let go of the question, or the person, we are struggling with. Perhaps like Jacob, we wonder when this is ever going to end. AND perhaps, like Jacob, we refuse to let go, to give up, until we have a blessing, an answer, a new name.

Because that’s really the point of the story, isn’t it? Despite the fact that Jacob can’t even figure out who his opponent is, despite the fact that he’s just the wrong sort of person—a thief, a usurper, a guy who can’t even get married without something going wrong—despite all of this, Jacob is stubborn, and refuses to give up, even when things seem impossible.

This is, Jacob’s virtue. There aren’t many—he’s not the kind of guy you want your kids to grow up to be, really. But his persistence, his stubbornness, shows us a faithful response to a question or a problem that won’t let go of you—a problem that tackles you on the riverbank in the middle of the night, or wakes you up from sleep, or haunts your daydreams and waking thoughts. And it’s tempting, isn’t it, to let go. To pretend that the problem doesn’t exist. To say that poverty or racism or public health isn’t my problem. It’s so easy to say “calm down” or “let’s deal with this another time”. It’s so easy to become the Israelites who God condemns in the book of Jeremiah, the people who “have treated the wound of my people carelessly, saying, “Peace, peace,” when there is no peace”.

What is your name?

It’s only after a night of agony, and a realization that this person, this stranger is worth asking a blessing from, that Jacob gets to this question. Because, ultimately, Jacob realizes that he already knows the answer to this unanswered question. The stranger’s response is “Why is it that you ask my name?”. The stranger never answers the question, never says his name. And yet, Jacob names the place “Peniel, saying, ‘For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.’”

Somewhere, in that night of agony, that night of unanswered questions, Jacob figured out that this stranger was God. And the only reason he knew this was out of stubbornness, a refusal to let go, to give up on the wrestling.

As we, like Jacob, face a host of new and old questions that refuse to go away, I hope our faithful response is this—to wrestle with them, to sit with the discomfort of not knowing answers, to stick with it for as long as it takes, until we too, receive a blessing, a new name, a new way of being God’s people in this world. Until when we ask of our question “what is your name”, we already know that the answer is God—the God who wrestles us, the God who calls us new life and dignity, the God who asks us what our name is, and who blesses our wrestling with a future we have only begun to imagine.

Video of service and sermon from Chapel of the Cross

On Becoming (sermon)

Good morning! It is a joy to be with you at Chapel of the Cross. My name is Amanda Bourne, and I am coming to you from the Diocese of Virginia. I look forward to being your curate over the next year, and joining you in your life and ministry together.  

And what a Sunday to step into your virtual pulpit for the first time. We’ve been staying home for months, and are in the midst of a pandemic which feels endless. We’ve watched our country, and felt ourselves grappling with, the charge that some are more equal than others—whether because of race, gender, sexuality, socioeconomic status or for a whole host of other reasons. We’ve had to weigh our complicity in this as individuals, as a nation, as a church… in a journey that is far from over.

And so we come to church this morning, I think, tired. Weary of a news cycle that feels like it will never end. Perhaps you are tuning in this morning, ready for something normal, something comfortable.

But, unfortunately, the readings for this morning aren’t cooperating. Today’s readings are far from… comforting. Hagar is thrown out into the desert as a result of Sarah’s jealousy. And Jesus tells us that he has not come “to bring peace, but a sword… to set a man against his father, a daughter against her mother… and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household”. Happy Father’s day indeed.

You could close your computer now, or turn off your TV now. Such is the advantage of having church at home. But I want to invite you to sit with all of this for a few minutes, to sit with the discomfort of Christ’s words, to sit with the discomfort of being asked what we would be willing to give up to follow Jesus.

I think Jesus is shocking to us, here. The Jesus of the beatitudes can’t say things like this, right? Why should I hate my family? Do I have to reject everything in order to take up the cross and follow Christ? Will all of my dearly held secrets, mistakes, thoughts, be made known? What will being a Christian require of me?

Jesus is shocking to us.

Jesus shocks us, shocks us out of our assumptions of what faith and discipleship look like.

Jesus shocks us out of our very comfortable life plans that we had imagined for our future… our summer vacations, our sense of what “normal” even looks like.

Jesus shocks us out of our stasis—our comfort zones, our equilibrium, our role in society, our daily schedule—and then asks us, still, to follow him.

If Jesus approached you by the sea of Galilee with this message, and then said follow me, would you do it? You know, I suspect that Simon Peter and Andrew might have stuck with fishing if this was Jesus’s opening line.

This question of discomfort makes me think about a children’s book that I grew up with, and perhaps you did too. The Velveteen Rabbit tells the story of a stuffed rabbit: a child’s toy, and his journey to become Real. After a long conversation with the rocking horse about what it takes to become Real, this is what happens:  

“The Rabbit sighed. He thought it would be a long time before this magic called Real happened to him. He longed to become Real, to know what it felt like; and yet the idea of growing shabby and losing his eyes and whiskers was rather sad. He wished that he could become it without these uncomfortable things happening to him.”

He wished that he could become Real without these uncomfortable things happening to him.

And so do we. We wish that we could become real, become more loving, become more compassionate, become better people, become better Christians. We wish that we could BECOME without these uncomfortable things happening to us.

We wish that we could ignore the fact that Jesus says sometimes he comes to bring division and a sword, rather than peace. We wish we could ignore the fact that growing in faith and charity can be painful, that being a Christian and living the way the GOSPEL commands us to can be divisive.

But we know that this is true. We know this is true because we’ve spent the last few months without our normal routines, our regular community gatherings, our worship together. We’ve had to leave behind our conception of how the world ‘should’ work, and own up to the fact that it, and we, are fragile and human.

We now know what it is to be uncomfortable, or worse. So, what do we do with that?

Enter Hagar, the main character in our reading from Genesis. On the one hand, she is dealing with much more than just discomfort. She is enslaved, and then cast aside by a jealous Sarah, left to wander in the wilderness and watch her son die before her eyes.

And yet, in this suffering, this is not the end. A world turned upside down is not her end, is not our end. “the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven, and said to her, “What troubles you, Hagar? Do not be afraid… Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water.”

We are not called to be comfortable, but we are not called to do this alone

We are not left alone, my friends. Our discomfort, our grief, our questions, are where God meets us. God meets us there, and opens our eyes as we discover what it means to be Real. God meets us as we cast aside our stuffing and newness and fear of change, and draws us into being more loving, more just, more fully human. God meets us, and says that “even the hairs of your head are all counted. So do not be afraid…” Do not be afraid.

Do not be afraid of the discomfort, the questions, the unmaking of who we thought we were as we die to sin, to normal, to comfortable. Because it is through this dying that we become alive, become REAL in Christ.

“It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”

May we have the courage to step forth into this journey of becoming Real.

Video of the service and sermon at the Chapel of the Cross.