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.

Waiting in Hope (sermon)

It takes a lot of work to make full-time farming work. If you’ve never had the chance to experience a real working farm, I commend it highly. It is a miracle of planning, technology, and working with, or battling with nature and the elements.

As some of you know, I grew up on a working family farm… and one of the things I’ve become aware of recently is just how many people it takes to farm. It’s not just the people who till the ground, but the local suppliers who source the seeds and tools. It’s the co-ops and markets that create places for product to be sold. It’s the farmer or farmers down the road who lend a hand, or offer advice, that take farming from an impossible task, to a communal endeavor.

Enter, Buddy Hance.

I don’t know if I’ve ever met this person. If he’s part of my father’s generation or my grandfather’s generation. But when something wasn’t working, the answer was “call Buddy Hance”. Other times, my father would walk in to the room and say, “oh, I just got off the phone with Buddy Hance”, and you knew that as soon as he said it, you were going to hear the local farm gossip, or some advice about a piece of machinery.

Buddy was the person you called when you needed help, or a bit of perspective, or camaraderie. And Buddy is just one name of dozens… of farmers, suppliers, of old timers who knew what it took to make a farm work.

And so, when there was a problem, you knew that sooner or later, you’d need to reach out to the Buddy Hances of the community.

You knew that you couldn’t fix this yourself, and needed some support.

This moment, the moment before the phone call, is where we find ourselves this week. It is the sixth Sunday of Easter, and I think this is the point where we start to get a bit antsy… like, how long does Easter last? Even our readings have shifted in tone.

This week, we find ourselves waiting all over again, a mini-Lent, perhaps. We can’t stay in Easter forever. On Thursday, we mark Ascension Day, when Christ will ascend to the Father. No more breakfasts on the beach, no more roads to Emmaus, no more breaking bread and locked doors.

So, what happens when Jesus goes back to heaven? What happens when it’s just us?

I wonder if we’re able to relate to this question a bit more, this year.

Perhaps, like never before, we know what it means to wait. There were a lot of jokes about the period of the pandemic being like a neverending Lent, and while not literally true, it does feel as it we’re still waiting for something hasn’t happened yet.

Maybe what you’re waiting for is seeing a friend in person, or going to your favorite coffee shop, or being able to visit your parents in their assisted living facility.

Maybe you’re waiting for school to open again, to be able to go to school, or just to have a bit of quiet at home.  

Maybe you’re waiting for a time when you don’t have to worry for your friends and family who are most at risk, or a time when the day will pass without some new sorrow or grief.

Maybe you’re waiting for a time when you can get outdoors again: if you don’t have the privilege of a backyard or walkable neighborhood.

We are waiting, friends, and you don’t need me to tell you that.

We are waiting, but we’re all waiting for something.

And talking with people during this time, I’ve realized that even in the midst of those pandemic, we’re waiting because we are… hopeful.

We wait with hope because we hope that there will be a vaccine. That there will be an end. That there will be some way of seeing our friends (not just online), that there will be some sort of normal life after COVID.

We wait with hope.

So, what does happen when Jesus goes back to heaven? What happens when it’s just us?

The gospel captures this moment of waiting with a promise. A promise of the thing we are to hope for. Jesus tells his disciples that “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever”.

We know, unlike the disciples in this moment, that this is “This is the Spirit of truth”, the flame of living fire that alights on the heads of the disciples at Pentecost. This is the Holy Spirit, who abides within us, and who works within us as we learn to live lives of faith.

And this life of faith is not easy. We know that, we who sit in the tension between our present reality, and what we hope for.

We know that, we who are waiting and working impatiently for change.

We know that, we who sit by the broken machinery or crop conundrum, waiting for a call back from the Buddy Hances of the world.

But we know that there is something to wait for.

The writer of 1 Peter reminds us of what we can do while we’re waiting, when they write that you should “Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you”.

There is always hope. As Christians, we believe in a hope that springs eternal. A hope that transcends life and death, health and sickness, joy, and fear. We are bearers of an eternal hope: the same hope that the disciples had as they waited for the Spirit to come at Pentecost.

Like the disciples, we are waiting, for an unknown amount of time.

But there is always hope, in the God who calls us, the God who loves us, and the God who will call us home.

So in this time of waiting, we must be prepared to give an account of the hope that is in us.

That no matter how long we work and wait for this pandemic to end, that there is a brighter world ahead… in this one, and in the next.

There is always hope, my friends. That is the very definition of our faith.

So as we wait, may we know the hope that is found in Christ, the promise of a new creation. May we live faithfully into this tension of a promise yet to come, for in this waiting, our hope springs eternal.

Preached virtually at St. Mary’s, Arlington, on Easter VI, 2020

You are God’s People (Sermon)

Be my strong rock, a castle to keep me safe,
for you are my crag and my stronghold; *
for the sake of your Name, lead me and guide me.

Ps. 31

In the 11th century, an unknown medieval writer, probably a monk or nun, copied and illustrated a document that we call the Harley Psalter. What’s amazing about this work is that for all 143 psalms… (it is incomplete)… there’s at least one illustration, sketched plainly in brown ink. It’s not the sort of thing you would expect from a medieval psalter, most of which are illuminated in bright colors. But sometimes these simple illustrations are incredibly profound.

The illustration for today’s psalm, Psalm 31, shows clusters of people, standing around on things that look like clouds. Perhaps like trying to walk around in a field of cotton candy. The only solid thing is a castle, which an angel, or perhaps Christ, stands outside of, helping souls out of the net which has been secretly set for them.

The only solid thing in the picture otherwise full of wavy lines is the castle: steady, full of straight lines. And for those of us who look at it from the 21st century, it is the most recognizable object; the most normal thing in a picture full of strange figures and clouds.

Something normal, in a sea of trouble. In a world that feels distinctly unreal, not normal.

There is no normal. That’s a sentence I find myself saying out loud a lot lately, when it’s so easy to make comparisons between the world as it used to be two months ago, and the world as it is now. For most of us, things have changed quite a lot.

Maybe in big ways. Maybe homeschooling your kids, something you didn’t sign up for this year, or ever.

Maybe working from home, or not working at all.

Maybe nothing much has changed, except you can’t run errands anymore, or go see friends or family.

The world has changed, and there is no more normal.

This morning’s lessons are a bit strange to read in a time when we’re so unmoored. When we live in a time where the world doesn’t seem normal at all, the certainty expressed in every single reading today is almost disconcerting. Stephen, even in the face of death, refuses to give up his faith. Peter talks about our role as cornerstones, as God’s people. Christ talks about our place in the kingdom of God, and his relationship to the Father.

But amidst all this disconcerting certainty, there’s some room for doubt, some room for feeling so far away from normal, whatever that is.

Our psalmist sounds so very certain to begin with: “In you, O Lord, have I taken refuge”.

But this confidence is riddled with the desperate plea for help that comes next: “Take me out of the net that they have secretly set for me”… God, I need your help right now.

“My times are in your hand; rescue me from the hand of my enemies” … I feel so very vulnerable right now… please help me.

Things are really bad for our psalmist. And perhaps you don’t feel like you are “forgotten like a dead man, out of mind”, but maybe you do. Maybe all of this is just too much—too much quiet, or not enough. Too much time to think, or too little, or too many things to worry about. Too much that isn’t normal. Too much uncertainty around when things might ever become ‘normal’ again.

But grief and pleas for help are not the only things that the psalmist names. In Psalm 31, the psalmist has this persistent, annoying confidence that despite this grief and trouble, that God will protect them.

Be my strong rock, a castle to keep me safe,

for you are my crag and my stronghold; *

    for the sake of your Name, lead me and guide me.

Our psalmist takes for granted that God is, in fact a strong rock. That God is righteous. And that God is capable of making things better.

Our psalmist is very clear about who they are placing their hopes in: you, God, are my crag and my stronghold.

We need normal. We need something routine. Something regular that we can rely on.

We rely on the seasons to change, for winter to melt into spring, for spring to usher in summer, and the bountiful harvest that feeds us, and gives jobs to so many. We rely on fall, and a chill in the evenings, and we count on a winter that will be cold enough to reset insect populations and pollen.

We rely on things to be normal in order for our world to work. In order to eat.

But things aren’t normal, are they? Work looks different now. Eating looks different now. Even the weather looks different now: just a few days ago, it was reported that the western half of the United States is suffering from a monumental drought that has lasted twenty years.

If we’re being honest with ourselves, the world hasn’t been normal for a long time, has it? Twenty years of drought? An economy brought to its knees by a virus originating in bats and pangolins? And so, we find ourselves in the midst of a time when we suddenly have to notice how bound up we are in each other. How much we rely on each other for food and conversation and company. How much we rely on having enough yeast, or flour, or toilet paper, or meat in the first place. How much we rely on everything functioning optimally at all times.

And so when it doesn’t, whether it’s through a drought or a virus, it can feel like we’re swimming in a sea of uncertainty.

So perhaps that’s where you are right now: in a sea of uncertainty, beset by questions.

We are the figures of people, wandering through the clouds, the barren net-filled landscape of the illustration from the psalter. We are standing on ground that feels like it might dissipate.

One of the things I find most interesting about this illustration is the fact that all of these figures… these figures who we might feel a lot like right now, are mostly looking at the castle.

They’re looking at their strong rock, a castle which keeps them safe, who is their crag and stronghold.

They are looking at the heavens which parted, when Stephen could see Jesus sitting in glory at the right hand of God, even as he is about to be stoned to death.

They are looking at the cornerstone, the stone that the builders rejected which has become the very head of the corner.

They are looking at Jesus Christ, who says to us, Do not let your hearts be troubled, for I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.

Do not let your hearts be troubled, friends. The world has changed, and we must now change along with it. We must allow our hopes and desires, and our very normal lives and ways of being in the world, to be changed by the needs of this time.

But one thing remains our constant. One thing remains our crag and our stronghold. Upon one rock can we place all our hopes, our grief, our fears, our questions: and that is the rock of Jesus Christ, who has redeemed us, and who loves us, and who says do not let your hearts be troubled.

Friends, what has not changed is this: that we are still God’s people.

“Once you were not a people,

but now you are God’s people;

once you had not received mercy,

but now you have received mercy.”

Friends, we are God’s people. We are God’s field and vine. And in a world where very few things seem normal, I hope you know that you are loved by God, that you are redeemed by Christ, that you are guided by the Holy Spirit. I hope you know that YOU ARE God’s people.

And in this strong rock, and in this castle—in life or in death, in joy or fear, in health or sickness, in hope or sorrow—we are safe. For once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people. You are God’s people.

Sermon Audio

Who could have imagined this future? (Good Friday Sermon)

“He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,
yet he did not open his mouth;

like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,
and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent,
so he did not open his mouth.

By a perversion of justice he was taken away.
Who could have imagined his future?”

Isaiah 53:7-8

Who could have imagined his future?

He was a bright kid, from a good family. Straight-A grades in school. Hard working, he’d have been a great carpenter like his father. He was good at whatever he tried, the Midas touch and all that. So of course it made sense that he’d be a good preacher and teacher. When he told us that “today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing”, quoting the prophet’s words, the Spirit of the Lord was upon him, and we believed him… in wonder. How is this Jesus, the carpenter’s son?

Who could have imagined his future?

See, we wanted him to be a prophet. But not like that. We wanted him to play by the rules, to heal, but not on the Sabbath. To honor the temple, but not literally flip the tables. To teach, but not rebuke the Pharisees. And if he was going to do all that, to be the Messiah like he said he was, he could have at least kicked out the Romans in the process.

Who could have imagined his future?

It seems so horrible that all this potential, all the work, all the teaching, should just end like this, hung up on a cross between two criminals, his mother and the other women weeping. And silence, horrible silence as the world just seemed to carry on as this potential slowly suffocated, suffocating all of our hope that this one might be the one to redeem Israel.

We couldn’t have imagined this, this future. We couldn’t have imagined a world where everything hangs in thin air, caught between past regrets and a terror that life won’t look any different from now. Silence, stifling all that could have been.

Who could have imagined his future?

Who could have imagined this future?

Who could have imagined that this is what the world looks like now? Waging war against an unseen virus that confines us to our houses, desperately hoping that we, or our loved ones won’t be the next victim of a reality that seems completely unreal, completely impossible.

Who could have imagined that in four weeks, our regular patterns, jobs, rhythms, community structures, and grocery-shopping routine could disappear? Who could have imagined not being able to plan for a future, in a present that is so uncertain?

Who could have imagined the silence and the loneliness that creeps in, despite our best efforts to erect digital barriers to keep us from remembering the fact that our world has gotten smaller?

Who could have imagined our future?

The question that the prophet Isaiah asks, that we are asking today, is found in a passage about the Suffering Servant, which Christians, from the gospel writers and beyond, have interpreted in light of Jesus’s death and resurrection. And so just a few verses earlier, Isaiah says of this suffering servant that

“Surely he has borne our infirmities
and carried our diseases;
yet we accounted him stricken,
struck down by God, and afflicted.”

Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases. Surely he has taken up our mistakes and should-haves. Surely Christ has borne our sadness, our disappointment. Surely Christ has borne our deaths, our positive COVID tests, our loneliness and isolation.

And yet, we accounted him stricken. Alone on the cross—a potential lost, the end of a promising career. We accounted the silence as the end.

Who could have imagined his future?

In the narratives of the other gospel writers, the silence at Christ’s death on the cross is not so silent. In Luke, the sixth hour through the ninth hour are enveloped by complete darkness in the middle of the day. Luke and Mark both talk about the veil of the temple being torn in two. Matthew, whose account we read on Palm Sunday, tells us something even more incredible: that as the veil of the temple was torn from top to bottom, “the earth shook and the rocks were split. The tombs were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised…”

We could not have imagined this future. We who thought this was the end.

But it’s not the end, is it? This is not the end—I’m reminded of that every time I step outside into nature, which has decided that spring is still going to come. The azaleas are still putting out buds and a few timid blossoms. The lilac by the driveway has exploded into flower, and the rosemary bush by the front door is sending out tentacles of green and purple. Our human world feels silent and morose, as if we’re still standing at the foot of the cross.

But while we stand in silence, the earth shakes. The rocks are split, and the things that we thought were dead are alive again: from the smallest branch to the mightiest oak.

Who could have imagined this future?

Today, this Good Friday, perhaps, more than ever before, it feels as if we are sitting at the foot of the cross. It is tempting to see the silence as the end. It is tempting to think of an uncertain future as an indication that there is no future.

And it is when we give in to this despair that the voice of God’s creation is the loudest, when it comes into its own, beckoning us towards a future that isn’t ours, but God’s. The rocks are split, the earth shakes, and the persistence of springtime reminds us of the hope of resurrection.

So sit here, at the foot of this cross. We may be here a while. But look outside at creation and remember that this is not the end. God moves over the face of our deepest fears and terrors, reminding us that this grief, this life, is not the end.

We could not have imagined this future.

But God did. And God continues to imagine a future beyond today or tomorrow or two months or six months from now, when we will join with all creation in proclaiming that He is Risen, shouting hosanna as we too, are risen.

Video link to sermon on Youtube.