We came as we were to the table of the Lord wrapped in warm pajamas, I with an alb and stole on top. We blessed your name, singing as we worked readying the table for our little liturgy. Candle, books, cloth, bread, wine: pieces of your presence among us. We crossed ourselves as I greeted all: May the grace and peace of Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all. And then we prayed, and we read, and we sang, and we shouted Halle Halle Halle-lujah! We broke open your word together and before we broke bread we offered one another a kiss of peace. Miriam jostled for access to everything, soaking in a baptism of symbol while Anastasia grinned and mouthed her part, awe expressed loud in silence. I had a flash of hope and wonder at the thought of the day when my children will offer me your child's precious body and blood with their own precious bodies. And I marveled at Anastasia's nod when I asked her if she wanted me to baptize her someday. You have done great things for us, Thea, and holy indeed is your name. Amen.
I’d like you to pause for a moment and think about your favorite book. Think about the title, the story, and the characters. Think about the actual copy or copies of the book that you’ve read, and where you were when you last read it. By a show of hands, how many of you have read your favorite book half a dozen times or more? I reread one of my favorite books this week. My copy of Lawrence Thornton’s Imagining Argentinahas yellowing paper, a splitting spine, and some of the most compelling characters I’ve ever met in words. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve read and recommended Imagining Argentina to others. It’s a hard book to read, but the vision of hope it presents is powerful precisely because the heart of the book is so difficult. I find that lots of books and stories are great to sink my teeth into, but then there are those precious books whose stories sink into me, and my life is different—more thoughtful, more considered, more virtuous—for it. When Fr. Gil announced several months ago that I would be preaching on August 17, I looked up the lessons of the day and practically jumped for joy. The stories of the Bible we hear today from the Old Testament and the gospel are two of my favorite stories from scripture. Fast forward to earlier this week, when I read an e-mail containing a message from our Presiding Bishop, Katharine Jefferts Schori. She wrote to ask the entire Episcopal Church to make today, August 17, a day of prayer for those in Iraq. It would be pretty hard not to pay attention to all the stories of what’s going on internationally these days. The Gaza Strip has been a focal point of terror between Palestine and Israel. Iraq is in the news for its highly visible genocide of Christians, among others. Thousands of militants who believe war is the only way to end war are ending the lives of innocent people, while they simultaneously inspire the uprising of new war-mongerers on every side. The desire to maintain the purity of one’s own land is the driving force behind much of this violence and prejudice. Even in our country, young unarmed men and women are being shot and killed by those who only seem to see that these young people are on the wrong side of the American color divide. Children are being detained like prisoners on our borders, in limbo between a land they cannot thrive in and a land that treats them as chaff among amber waves of grain. I don’t know about you, but I haven’t slept well for weeks. These stories echo painfully in my heart. They force me to acknowledge that that simmering hatred becomes a blazing rage in manifold ways each day among people both far away and here at home, people who claim to be driven by the call of the law, or the call of God—people like me. On this day of prayer for those innocents who are dying in Iraq, I see in today’s lessons stories that are less interesting than urgent, more deep than obvious. The story of Joseph is an epic--we first meet him as a boy, Jacob's son. His many older brothers, in a fit of collective jealousy, throw him into a well, leaving him for dead. Then they change their minds, pull him out of the well, and sell him into slavery instead, figuring they ought to get something out of him. Joseph ends up in Egypt and endures prison and other grave hardships, with no hope but God's promise to help him. Eventually he becomes Pharaoh's most trusted advisor. When we encounter him in today's lesson, his brothers have just arrived, desperate for mercy from Pharaoh’s advisor in the midst of famine. They don’t know that the powerful man before them is their brother. As Joseph prepares to reveal his identity to his brothers, he sends everyone else away. In the end, all of Egypt, even the Pharaoh's household, hears his cries when he is alone with his brothers for the first time in years. Next, in the gospel story, we hear about a Canaanite woman, a foreign woman, who comes to Jesus begging healing for her daughter who is possessed by a demon. At first Jesus ignores her, as if she weren’t even there. Then his disciples get antsy and ask him to send her away. To appease his friends, he gives her an excuse. She persists. He gives another excuse; she persists again, but this time she refers to him as master of the story that they’re creating through their dialogue, and it’s at that point where the story turns. The difficulty with these stories for me comes when I try to put myself in them. I'm not powerful Pharaoh. I’m not wise, faithful Joseph. I’m not the woman begging on her knees for her daughter's life, and I’m certainly not Jesus. When I put myself in these stories, the characters that resemble me most are the jealous, grudging brothers and the possessive, anxious disciples. I live a comfortable, privileged life. I don't easily relinquish my comfort, particularly for someone I don't like or whom I have no direct connection to. With all the horrors I read about in the news, whether in Gaza or in Iraq or in the United States, I perceive the selfishness of my fellow humans keenly, because it is that same selfishness on a grand scale that I practice on a micro-scale. I see in middle-eastern war-mongerers, as well as white-skinned insiders screaming at and threatening brown-skinned outsiders, unholy icons of the many ways in which my heart is hard and impenetrable. I cry over what I read in the news and in these scriptures, because I know how hard my heart is to break open, and I know it can't be any easier to break open any of theirs. But here's the thing: Joseph's brothers, who sent Joseph to his doom, watched as God's grace broke through their evil deeds. God’s grace revealed not only their brother who had saved all of Egypt and surrounding lands from famine, but revealed their brother who loved them more than ever. And then there’s the foreign woman from the gospel. By calling Jesus “Master,” she forces him to pay attention to her. Not only does he pay attention to her, but his understanding of what it means to be Lord is subverted by her. Through this woman’s unflagging persistence in the face of blatant rejection and humiliation, Jesus—God’s own chosen one-- perceives that his power as Lord is not just for the sake of “his people,” but for all who call on him for saving help. Through this foreign woman, God's grace breaks through the walls Jesus and his people had built against this woman, this outsider. If God can accomplish mighty, gracious deeds through possessive, jealous, rebellious hearts like those of Joseph’s brothers, and if God's grace can break through the walls that Jesus' disciples and even Jesus put up to guard their selfish interests--then perhaps God's grace can break through right here in our midst. What if the stories of war-mongerers and privileged insiders were subverted by stories more persistent and enduring than theirs? What if they were to see that they are indeed called by God--not called to hate and shut out strangers, but rather to love and to welcome and uplift them? I wonder, if we each take a moment to remember again our favorite books and stories, what we might discover about ourselves from them. What do we find most compelling? Do we embrace the bravery and outrageous kindness and selflessness that we encounter in our most beloved, imperfect characters? What if we were to embrace Joseph’s love of those who had utterly betrayed him? What if you and I embraced Jesus’ humility in accepting that we, as citizens of the most powerful nation on earth, are accountable to more than just the people we call our own? What if we listened not to our own wisdom, but the wisdom that inspires us to become who we are called to be? Maybe the Word of God, Holy Sophia, would become incarnate in us as it did in Mary when she made her bold, unwavering, all-embracing “Yes.” Perhaps, if each of us said yes to the wisdom in the stories that are most precious and compelling to us, we, like Mary, would become God-bearers in the world. Perhaps then, beginning with you and me, God’s peace would spread to all lands and peoples, and then perhaps the peoples of the world, both here and elsewhere, would come at last to dwell in the everlasting peace of God. Amen.
I began a spiritual practice of silence this morning--ten minutes, first thing after getting the baby her morning milk, eyes closed, hands and body open to receive. One thing I received was the final phrase from a Taizé song: "Come and listen to me." I couldn't remember in that moment what song it came from--all I could remember were those words. Without context, the words took new shape. Was God bidding? Was I bidding? Was someone else bidding? I realized that all three were doing the bidding. My heart turned then toward the fruits of the Spirit, and then to spiritual and corporal works of mercy. As my silence ended, I wondered whether there were opportunities available to volunteer in local hospices and prisons--to listen, to be present, to abide in what is difficult and deeply transforming. I found out that there are abundant hospice volunteer opportunities in the Valley of the Sun. I found far less when I was looking for volunteer opportunities for prison ministry, at least from within an Episcopal or interfaith context. I asked for help on Facebook and got information from two of the leaders from my parish, one of whom pointed me to a notice on the Trinity Cathedral website that Bishop Kirk Smith is planning a summit for those involved in or interested in prison ministry within the Episcopal Diocese of Arizona. Coincidence? Spirit stirring in open hearts for the common good?
My 3-year old is fond of calling me Sister Kate. She's also fond of running through the line-up of our family names. Just now she said, "Sister Kate, Sister Miriam, Sister Daddy, Sister Mommy!" I think she's onto an insight about what a title like "Sister" can signify, but I'll wait till she's older to ask about it. Do you remember when Sister Act came out in the early 1990's? I loved that movie. It was the movie that made me love Whoopi Goldberg. It was amazing to see a film about "my people" told from the perspective of such a quirky religious outsider. In what ways does donning a religious habit, living the religious life, and taking the title of "Sister" change me? In what ways does my wearing of the habit, living of the life, and using the title of "Sister" change what others think of religious life?
Sister Thea Bowman was a Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration, and she changed the face of the African-American Roman Catholic Church.
Sister Thea was a woman who led with joy, story, music, and a sharp intellect. She was a woman who had the power to speak prophetically against injustice in ways that would soften the hearts of even old white bishops--again and again. Her power was the power to tell a story, to preach without a fourth wall, to engage others at the level of senses and emotion and experience.
She died from cancer a couple of weeks before I turned eight years old. It was another twenty years before I knew who she was.
When I make my solemn profession as a Benedictine Canon next spring, I plan to take Sister Thea's name as my religious name. I see in Sister Thea a bright, strong, gentle, humble, magnetic leader who could tear down any Jericho walls with the dulcimer sounds of her story-telling-and-transforming voice.
Do I have the courage to be more than I am? Do I have the humility to let go of my own weighty importance so I can fly with the wild, light Spirit in whom I put my trust and hopes?
If you've never had the experience of participating in a spiritual discernment committee, I invite you to consider it. After my fifth (and final) meeting with my discernment committee for priesthood yesterday evening, my committee confirmed that they heard my call to priesthood. And that's not even the extraordinary part. The extraordinary part is that, as I prayed yesterday before my meeting, I prayed for total surrender to God's will, and for the faithfulness not to run if that will was something my ego didn't like. My total surrender granted me total, deep, quieting peace. The extraordinary part is that, having let go of my attachment to the outcome of my discernment process, I happened to read (during evening prayer) the story in Matthew about the disciples who wanted to know why they couldn't heal the sick on their own when Jesus so easily could. Jesus told them it was because they lacked faith, and that if they had faith even the size of a mustard seed, mountains would move for them. And I realized at that moment that my mustard seed faith was what had moved the mountain of my ego in order to make a straight path for Spirit to enter and dwell deep within my heart. The extraordinary part is that, despite having a clear sense of call when I walked into the process, my sense of call widened and deepened and became more rooted as the dialogue went on.
The extraordinary part is that, especially in the final two meetings, as I listened to the challenging questions of my committee members, I perceived Spirit doing the asking. And as I offered my vulnerable, open-hearted answers, I perceived Spirit speaking through me. (It's fair to say that I've never experienced God's voice speaking to me so powerfully as I have in my discernment committee meetings, and for a Benedictine who hears God speaking to her through liturgy and scripture and encounters with others all the time, that's saying a lot.)
The extraordinary part is that, despite my Enneagram-three-personality-type's desire to manage a situation in such a way that the outcome is "positive," I was required to relinquish my ability to do that in order to speak plainly and truthfully. I was painfully aware that my deep honesty could at any moment result in the humiliation of my ego, and I spoke anyway. In that total risk of my ego, I realized it was not my ego that spoke, but Spirit.
When I walked out of my meeting last night, I had no idea what my committee members had heard. I didn't know what they would say. My three-ish ability to anticipate the outcome of the process failed me spectacularly. And I perceived in my failure the possibility of God's success--success in finding a way to make use of the quirky instrument that I am.
My committee is passing me on to the next steps of the discernment process, steps that will be challenging in their own ways. What my committee heard may not be confirmed by the next folks I encounter in the discernment process. But what happens next is not my concern.
The most important piece to emerge for me from this discernment process is the profound recognition that my heart--my whole heart--belongs to the one I call God. Whatever comes, I know that I will be faithful to the path God has prepared for me. I won't turn away. This is God's gig, and I am God's beautiful, imperfect instrument.
What song(s) will God choose to play through me for the uplifting, healing, and reconciling of her creation?
My fourth priestly discernment meeting, which happened yesterday morning in between Pentecost liturgies, gives me goosebumps as I reflect on it. I realize that the questions I received were the questions of Spirit herself, that God was speaking through the voices of my five committee members (right there in Heidi Chapel) and I was being beckoned to answer God's questions from the depths of my vulnerable heart. The whole of the Pentecost season (which, thanks to the influence of Latin in the Roman Church, we call "Ordinary Time") is a time of just this kind of discernment, of radical listening. My Pentecost theme for Thealogical Lady will be "Spirit Whispers," and here I will invite myself and my readers to cultivate the ability to hear what Spirit says. To listen, ob audire, is to be obedient. Obedience is one of the vows that I have made as a Benedictine Canon, and obedience--radical listening--is something to which all Christians are called by baptism. Listening is a path of wisdom for any mindful person, that she might hear something greater and wiser than her own solitary voice. In reflecting on the Spirit-ed questions that emerged during my discernment meeting yesterday, clarity about my identity rose up. I am not merely Kate, responding to a diocesan priestly call; I am Sr. Kate, a vowed member of the Community of St. Mary of the Annunciation, responding to a religious priestly call. I wonder what further clarity will emerge from my next discernment meeting. In what ways will Spirit speak through the curiosity and concerns of my committee members? What will I hear, if I have ears to listen?
We're halfway to Pentecost, the feast of God's Spirit. In the West the color of the Spirit is red, just as the color of Jesus as Lord is red. In the East, however, the color of the Spirit is green, marking the Spirit's greening, creative, birthing work. As I struggle through the labor of giving birth to the vocation that's been gestating in me all my life, I am in need of a skillful, experienced midwife. I find myself wondering if I'm fit for the mothering I'm preparing to engage in. Will I have the energy to do it? How will I maintain balance so I don't fall apart? Is this sort of mothering my true call? What if that which I birth is nothing like what I expected? I have a whole team of midwives to help me through this process, but their skill and encouragement doesn't make my birthing easier. It hurts. It's one of the most difficult things I've ever done. And there is the horrifying-because-it-seems-so-selfish possibility that I will disappointed with what emerges from me. I am conscious of wanting things to go a certain way, and aware that they may not, and aware that that's out of my hands. The Spirit has something in store for me beyond my imagining, and my job is to let my expectations roll off me so I can focus on laboring it into the world. The above image is from Matthew Fox's Illuminations of Hildegard of Bingen. It's called "Sin - Drying Up."