This past week, a group of my friends had a conversation about what we want. That was the straightforward question – what do you want. It is a common one this time of year, usually as an invitation to supply a gift list. But this group went a little deeper. 

None of the things we wanted were things we could really give each other. 

Some wanted better jobs, others just any job at all.
A couple of friends wanted holidays uninterrupted by relatives in the throes of addiction.
One wanted her hair to grow back after cancer treatment.
I will confess that my wish was to be able to get to and from work without passing a roadwork zone. 

However the most common want was for peace. Over and over people lifted this up as the one want they had above all others. 
Peace of mind.
Peace in families.
Community, national, and world peace.

Above their other wants was a desire for other people – all people – to have safety, health, shelter, enough food to eat. A desire for less anxiety, danger, and stress. A longing for more respect, and love. 

These sound like the same wants I hear most years. Certainly, the longing for peace bites a little more this year with multiple wars raging. But I frankly don’t remember a year when there was so much peace that people didn’t feel a need to ask for more. On one hand I am moved that so many long for peace, and on the other hand disappointed that we never seem to get it. 

That longing for peace goes back before I can remember. To my parents, grandparents, all my ancestors. All the way back to people who have been kidnapped and held captive during war, and to them the prophet Isaiah proclaimed,
Liberty to the captives
Release of prisoners
Gladness instead of mourning

Those things were at the top of their list of wants, and could easily be a list for today. This desire, this want, spans generations. Perhaps it is part of what makes us human – both that we create the devastation and then we yearn for its repair. 

Seven hundred years after Isaiah’s proclamation, a young pregnant Mary made her own proclamation of good news to the oppressed and the brokenhearted. Speaking from her lowly status, she announced that, all appearances to the contrary, she was blessed. Like 90% of the people around her, she was very poor. She was a disgraced pregnant girl. Being humble and meek was not a choice for her, it was a status imposed by the powers that be. 

And yet, like Isaiah, whose words she surely had heard all her life, she rejoiced in what God had done and was doing in her life. And not just in her life. From her remote village, Mary spoke to a longing for peace going back and forward through generations and across borders to the nations of the world. 

Living daily in Roman occupied territory, she sang about the leveling of oppressed and oppressor, of powerful and powerless. Where did her audacity come from? How could she translate the small injustices in her own life into the larger brutalities of people she’d never seen or heard of?

She was able to see God acting in her life and the life of people around her when most would see no evidence. She was able to connect what she experienced in her own life with the promises God made to her ancestors – and she trusted that those promises will carry forward into the future. 

She saw all this in her life of struggle. And she saw them not in a distant, dreamy future. She sang about the redemption God brings here on earth. Mary’s song lauds the God who not only saves souls, but also saves embodied people. Redemption begins here on earth – filling the hungry, dethroning the mighty. 

And her song is not saying that good things WILL happen, but that they HAVE happened. 

Most of us have objectively much easier lives than she did; why should we complain? Yet at our core, our wants have remained remarkably similar. And our sorrows are every bit as valid as hers or anyone’s. 
Like Mary, we still see a need for mercy. 
Like her we still see the benefit of scattering the proud and lifting up the lowly. 
Like her we want on behalf of others. 
And maybe like her, we can be inspired by the promise God made to our ancestors and see hope around us even in the midst of our hardships. 

There is hope in our struggle for financial security, in our search for healing from diseases of the mind and body. There is hope that hair will grow back and injuries will heal. There is hope, even, that war will cease. Advent is a reminder that we can join Mary in seeing God working in our lives right now. In unexpected ways. As unexpected as a baby given to us as a savior. As unexpected as mercy and justice in a harsh and unbalanced world. 

As unexpected as a song from a poor, disgraced, small-town girl that rejoices in the forever promise that belongs to all of us. 

Mary’s Song (Luke 1:46-55)
“My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowly state of his servant.
    Surely from now on all generations will call me blessed,
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
    and holy is his name;
indeed, his mercy is for those who fear him
    from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
    he has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones
    and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things
    and sent the rich away empty.
He has come to the aid of his child Israel,
    in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
    to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

The loneliest sheep in the world

Two years ago, a woman named Jill Turner was kayaking along the coast of Scotland when she saw a sheep on the beach at the base of a cliff. The sheep bleated at the kayaker, apparently calling out to her. Jill said the sheep “saw us coming and was calling to us along the length of the beach following our progress until she could go no further. She finally turned back, looking defeated.”

Jill assumed that the sheep would find her way back to her flock and grazing fields. After all, if she had gotten herself to that beach, she could get herself back. 

However, two years later, paddling along the same coast, Jill saw the sheep again! This time much shaggier but still bleating for help. The sheep, now named Fiona, was trailing two years growth of wool which flowed down her back like the train of a fancy ball gown. A very dirty ball gown. 

(Here’s the whole story – with photos!)

At this second sighting the kayaker was moved that the poor animal had been stranded for so long all by herself. Sheep, after all, are social, flock animals. They are not meant to be alone.“It is heart-rending,” she said. “We honestly thought she might make her way back up that first year.”

No one knows how Fiona got to that lonely, rocky beach and she surely couldn’t get herself back. She did have enough grass to eat and a tiny cave for shelter, but not much else. 

After the kayaker contacted some animal rescue teams, the newspapers picked up the story and named Fiona the Loneliest Sheep in the World. She was featured on TV news and comedy shows. Eventually, a group of five farmers with lots of equipment lifted Fiona up the steep 600 foot slope and she is now living the good life at a farm/tourist attraction. 

When I hear a story like this, I feel a mixture of wonder and embarrassment that we – you and I – are so often compared to sheep in the Bible. Wonder, embarrassment – but also recognition. Because when you think about it, we humans can be resourceful and affectionate and useful – and yet we also get ourselves into all kinds of predicaments. Many times we get ourselves into messes that we can’t get out of alone. 

And so, not only are we compared to sheep, but our rescuer – Jesus – is compared to a shepherd. One who will do the spiritual equivalent of scaling a 600 foot cliff to lift us back to the life we were meant to live with all the other sheep in the flock. 

At this pivot point between the end of one liturgical year and the beginning of the next, I’m thinking about the mixed images we have for that rescuer – 

Enthroned in glory and surrounded by angels
Chasing wayward sheep who keep getting lost or stuck.

And then I think about what it means that we are like sheep. We are wonderful, resourceful, affectionate and useful – and we are embarrassing and get ourselves into all kinds of predicaments we can’t fix. 

And yet, To be like a sheep is to be in God’s hand. 
To be like a sheep is to be part of the same creation as the caverns of the earth, the heights of the hills, the seas and the dry land.
To be like a sheep is to be fed and watered, to have rest when we are weary. To be bound up when we are wounded, strengthened when we are week. 
At some point in our lives, we end up like Fiona – at the bottom of a proverbial 600 foot cliff all by ourselves with no way up. We might end up in that place by mistake or on purpose. 

At times like that, remember that the God who created everything is not distant, uninterested, or too good for us.

Beginning with Advent, we turn our attention to the confounding miracle that this God came to be among us in cities and fields, in homes and under bridges, in hospitals and in bars, and at the bottom of 600 foot cliffs. And as the most vulnerable one of us – the Jewish baby under Roman oppression. 

That’s a comforting thought when you feel like the loneliest sheep in the world. 

Waiting for the Kingdom of Heaven in the Home Depot parking lot

Sermon preached at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church 9/24/23

(Audio version here:

The landowner said to them, ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’

Less than five miles from here at the Home Depot on I-35, men (and it is all men) gather every day and wait for work. They have a huge range of skills – and many of them have multiple skills. Carpentry, masonry, plumbing, roofing. They can trim your trees and mow your lawn, demolish buildings or construct them. They have skills, but what they don’t have is a place to use them. So they gather at the Home Depot and wait for someone to hire them for the day.

That is just one of many day labor sites in Austin. They are places of hope and desperation. It’s great if you get a job. Most people hiring show up early and select the team they need for that day. If you are not selected early, you wait. You might get lucky if someone comes by later in the morning or even the afternoon, or you might waste all day there with no job at all.

Everyone starts over again the next day. Sometimes you are selected and you work hard all day – and sometimes for this you are not paid. Wage theft is routine for day laborers. And there is often not much they can do because their work agreement is not documented. They rely on trust in strangers. 

Even when you do get paid to work for a day, the wages can be paltry. You are often paid in cash – or by check and then have to pay a hefty fee at a check cashing service. The amount you are paid might feed you for a day or two, but it’s unlikely to feed and house your whole family. It would take a whole lot of you working a whole lot of days to make that much. 

If you were paying attention when I was reading the gospel, you might think you know where I’m going with this. In Jesus’ parable of the laborers in the vineyard, a landowner hires day laborers to work for him in a vineyard. Some he hires early in the day, others at later and later times. And then he pays them all the same wage no matter how many hours they put in. 

This parable is seen as an allegory about how generous God is; the vineyard is the kingdom of heaven and God rewards all those who do the kingdom work no matter how long they work. (And some of the workers get jealous about this whole scheme and try to tell the landowner/God it’s unfair. And the landowner/God reminds them that it’s God’s prerogative to be generous and merciful – and that is what we believe God is like, generous and merciful.)

It’s not a bad understanding to focus on God’s generosity and how we all have equal access to God’s kingdom no matter how long we’ve been laboring in God’s vineyard. 

But that’s not what I was thinking about with this parable. After all, Jesus uses images like the vineyard and the day laborers not only because of how they might represent the holy, but how they reveal the unholy.  

In Jesus’ time day laborers were a cheap and plentiful source of labor. Many had been forced off their farms due to debts they owed to the Roman Empire. Now living in extreme poverty, these displaced workers hoped to be hired in any way that would help them feed their families. Their prospects were more precarious than slaves, who for all their hardships at least had a place to live and food to eat. 

The pay for day laborers was not great. A single denarius, enough to buy one’s daily bread. 

Think about those workers who wait and wait to be hired.

About what it means to be left out of the work day after day after day.

We might wonder if the parable is just about the pay or the work. Maybe it’s about the whole unjust way humans have structured work. 

The laborers in the story end up misunderstanding how this vineyard operates – they want some economic fairness from the landowner. Who can blame them? They are not greedy; they are all just a couple of hours away from being the ones who were left waiting in the marketplace, the ones no one asked. 

They are just a couple of hours away from no pay at all – and now they’ve worked really hard and shouldn’t they get a reward for THAT? 

Back in the 21st century, at the same time that day laborers without work are gathering daily at Home Depot, there are other laborers around the country leaving their places of work on strike. When negotiations for better working conditions fail, often the only strategy workers have for bettering their situation is to withhold their labor. 

While the laborers in the vineyard were upset that some got paid the same wage for less work, today’s strikers are protesting so that everyone can get a fair wage.  Unlike the laborers in the vineyard, they are not jealous of another’s wage, they want what’s best for the least paid. Historically, workers who strike have gained all sorts of humane treatment that you and I now take for granted – like weekends or an 8-hour workday or safe working conditions. 

When we think about day laborers and autoworkers, it raises the question of why it is so hard for a society such as ours 

a world such as ours 

in which there is plenty of work to do…

why is it so hard for people to have work to do that meets their needs for survival and our collective need for all of our skills and effort?

Jesus said, “The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard.”

Even before we get to the wages the landowner will pay, the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who hires laborers for his vineyard. 

Perhaps it is working in the vineyard that is the gift. Not the wages. 

Work is more than what you do and what you are paid. Work is part of what makes us human and makes us a community. In fact, you can make the argument that we were made for work. 

In the Tuesday Bible Study Group, we are reading Genesis. In the second chapter we read about God creating humans from the earth and 

The Lord God took the human and settled him in the garden of Eden to farm it and to take care of it. 

God created us to work in the garden – or you might say, to work in the vineyard. 

And harking back to that image of humans working the earth at the beginning of time, Jesus describes the kingdom of heaven as a place where humans also work the earth. 

This parable presents us with challenges. 

Jesus used an exploitive work practice to illustrate the kingdom of heaven, not because the kingdom itself is exploitive, but because kingdom work will reveal and overturn those structures. 

When I drive by the entrance to Home Depot, I see dozens of people ready to work. I hope they are asked to work in someone’s vineyard and given at least their daily bread. 

There are many reasons a person could be in the shoes of a day laborer. It could be immigration status or being recently released from prison. It could be disability or a language barrier. It could be because they are in debt to our version of the Roman Empire. 

I hope that all our sisters and brothers who’ve been left out might someday be invited in to till the soil with us. 

We were created to work this soil, to use what we have in God’s creation and participate in God’s mission.  

Jesus tells us that the kingdom of heaven is here and in this parable he tells us that it is a realm in which our labor is valued and needed. Every day.

Whenever we are engaged in the work of the kingdom, there is always enough work for anyone who accepts the invitation. That work, as our baptismal covenant tells us, includes seeking and serving Christ in all persons, striving for justice and peace among all people, and respecting the dignity of every human being. 

So, anytime you are engaged in service, justice making, peace making, and dignity raising – you are working in the vineyard. And if you have done that work before, you know that everyone is invited to join in. 

What the laborers in the Home Depot parking lot can remind us is that it is a gift to work in the vineyard, to toil in the world God made for us and made us from. 

All of us are made to work here and in God’s vineyard. 

If you’ve ever found yourself waiting to have your gifts and labor valued – know that God has invited all of us in. 


Improv, foot washing, and practicing Love

Sermon preached at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church on 4/10/22

(Audio version here:

“You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.”

There is an organization in Austin that takes advantage of two of our city’s unique assets: our relatively large number of professional musicians and also our relatively large number of people who want to be professional musicians. Anthropos Arts matches professional musicians with low-income band students for instrument lessons and opportunities to perform in public. It is a genius idea that yields amazing results – because if you are learning to play a musical instrument, having a good teacher who believes in you is important.

And just as important is practicing. You know the old joke: How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice. So these pairs of adult mentors and students practice regularly – scales and technique and songs. And one of the distinctive things about their program is that they also practice improvisation.

Now, it might seem counter-intuitive to practice improv. When you improvise you are creating something on the spot, out of the blue and you will never do that particular thing again. You might think, there is no way to practice that, but there is. You learn to improvise by doing it. And every time you do it, you get better at it.

That sounds like some kind of crazy, circular logic, but it’s true. You do need to know the basics of how to play your instrument, what musical notes are, and all that. But the only way to really learn to produce a unique musical expression with no notice is to do it. And that is what these students do. They practice and know their instruments – and when they perform in public they know that their director might point at them in the middle of a piece and they will be expected to improvise. And in fact each of them performs at least one solo improvisation in public each year. They never know when it will happen.

There’s something compelling and beautiful that happens when musicians improvise. They get out of their heads and into the music. The rest of the band and the audience root for them. It turns out the beauty of improvising – in music or acting or even in ministry – is that it requires you to be connected to those around you. You have to listen because what you do is connected to what came before and what comes after.

Improvisation is all about what you DO, not what you KNOW. And at the same time, when you do it, you will understand what you are doing better. I’ve seen this happen with the students in that program. Knowing their own part is not enough. They want to know what all the other kids on stage will play because they might be called upon to take that tune to the next level with a riff that they cannot anticipate. All their preparation individually and as a group prepares them to create something novel at the drop of a hat.

I think being a disciple of Jesus is a lot like this kind of musical improvisation, and it is the way Jesus models for us what a life following him is like. Certainly no one expected him to get up in the middle of dinner and start washing their feet. But that is what he did, at the drop of a hat, out of the blue.

And he told them, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.”

Surely there are lots of times in the Gospels that the ones closest to Jesus, the ones who know him best, don’t understand what he is teaching or what is going on right in front of them. Why does he flip tables in the Temple court? Why does he talk to thatSamaritan woman by the well?

What did he mean when he said all those things about being bread, a shepherd, a gate, or a vine?

Jesus confronts their lack of understanding on a daily basis, yet instead of getting frustrated he improvises a way to show them who he is and show them how to follow him. He does it by getting on his knees and washing their feet. Then he tells them to do for each other what he has done for them.

There is no other way to understand what it is to be a follower of Jesus that to do this. Just like there is no other way to learn a musical instrument other than to play it.

He washes their feet. He tells them to wash one another’s feet. He commands them to love one another. To wash another’s feet – indeed to let Jesus or one of his followers wash your feet – is an act of love. It is humble, tender, and vulnerable.

There is a lot that is symbolic in this foot washing. In this act, Jesus is acting out being a servant to his disciples – which is why Peter objects so vehemently – so the foot washing is a visible way to enact that servant leadership.

And Jesus washes their FEET, which can mean all kinds of things. In those days, when everyone walked everywhere in sandals, feet were dirty, calloused, and hard working every day. To clean another’s feet was the lowliest task and for the Lord to do it reversed all the expected roles of a Messiah.

And Jesus tells us that this reversal is how people will know we are his followers. He wants us to believe, certainly, but our belief is not how the world will know us.

“You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.”

We might or might not “get” why he washed the disciples’ feet or told them to wash each others’ feet. It’s possible that we don’t understand why we are about to wash each others’ feet here tonight. That’s okay.

The world will know us by how we love one another. And we will show our love for one another in ways large and small that are like washing each others’ feet.

The love we show by washing each others’ feet is sort of like practicing for musical improvisation. We need to know the basics of how to play our instruments, as it were, our scripture and tradition. We should spend time in worship and fellowship with other believers.

And we should practice improvising acts of selfless love for one another. Because at any moment Jesus, our band director, might point at any one of us and say, “You! It’s your turn to improvise! It’s your turn to create an act of humble service at an unexpected place and time!”

To be ready for that time, we practice. We practice by washing each others feet so that we know what it feels like to be tender and caring for another and what it feels like to let them take care of us. We practice so we know what it takes for us to be vulnerable and reveal our calloused, ticklish feet that have carried us through this day, this week, this Lent, this lifetime.

None of us is born knowing how to love this way, we learn it. We learn it from Jesus and we learn it from each other. We practice loving each other as much as we can. At an unexpected time in an expected place you will have the chance to show that love in an unexpected way. At the time, you may not understand why, but it’s okay to understand later. For now, the most important thing is to love others as Jesus loved us. Amen.

Welcoming the Little Ones

Sermon preached at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church 7/2/23

(For audio go here:

Matthew 10:40-42

Jesus said, “… whoever gives even a cup of cold water to these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.”

Many years ago, I was working at El Buen Samaritano. This was so long ago that they were not located on their current beautiful campus just south of here – they were in a dilapidated building on South 1st street that could barely contain the clinic, food pantry, and other programs. Still we served a lot of people all over the county and sometimes instead of them coming to us, we went to them. 

Now, I was a grant writer, so most of my time I sat in an office in front of a computer. I’d craft descriptions of our work that could be boiled down to something like this:

El Buen Samaritano is a mission of the church that brings the love of God to people who need food, health care, and education. 

And there is no denying that is what we did – or at least what the amazing staff did. 

One day, however, I got to see my work, our work, from a very different angle. 

On that day, a member of our staff named Jorge invited me along to visit a client who lived all the way out near Elgin. He thought I’d benefit from seeing in person the kinds of people he met in his work. Jorge was what we called a “promotero” or Community Health Worker. A native of Mexico, Jorge could help immigrant families better understand the health and social systems here and he’d direct them to resources to address their needs. The families he visited lived in extreme poverty. 

So we drove out to what Jorge called “the medium of the nothing” which was his rough translation of “the middle of nowhere.” On a wooded lot with a deteriorating mobile home, an elderly couple greeted us with big smiles and invited us into their home. They conducted a conversation in Spanish about what was going on in the family and what help they needed. I listened and looked around. This couple had worked hard for years as agricultural laborers in Florida and Texas. 

When it was time to leave, the couple walked us out to Jorge’s car and then the woman told us to wait and she smiled at me. She rushed back into the house and came out with a dozen eggs from the chickens she was raising. She insisted that I take them. It was humbling. A woman with almost nothing gave me what in my suburban neighborhood would be considered a gourmet treat. 

Jesus tells his disciples 

“whoever gives even a cup of cold water to these little ones in the name of a disciple – truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward” 

I think maybe those eggs were like a cup of cold water. After all, Jorge and I were out there in the medium of the nothing on an errand of Good News and when that elderly couple welcomed us it was as if they were welcoming Christ himself. 

But the flip side of the story could also be true – That couple was offering us Good News. They were on an errand for Christ as well. 

It is common and not a mistake to hear the words of Jesus to his disciples as words to us, his followers today. Like them, we are called to share the Good News, to minister to the vulnerable.  But sometimes I think we forget their context and how different it is from ours. 

Jesus’ original disciples were a small group of people spreading a new message to people who had never heard it before. These first disciples, and a short time later the early church, were a small minority group with no power who faced lots of skepticism, to say the least. In those days, Christians were the “little ones” and they were asked to identify themselves with the other “little ones” of the world. 

Today, most people in the world have heard of Christianity. In our country Christianity is the majority religion. Not only that, but in a global and historical context, many Christians in America have access to power and resources – we don’t usually think of ourselves as the “little ones.” And when we go out to share the Good News, it is very likely to people who have already heard it. 

And that brings about an intriguing possibility: what if the people to whom we minister are also ministering to us? We might go out into the world hoping people will welcome us and our message- what if they are hoping we will welcome them? 

The vulnerable can be missionaries, too.

Have you even been on the receiving end of welcome from an unexpected source? Has someone you thought of as a “little one” been the bearer of Good News?

What scripture and our own experience tells us again and again is that we welcome and encounter God when we encounter the other. Our acts of comfort and kindness touch the heart of God and can transform our lives. Likewise, when others welcome us there is also an encounter with God. 

There is reciprocity in welcome. Each time you encounter another person with welcome you have the opportunity to gain insight, to learn a new story of faith, to experience a new way to encounter the Holy. We approach each other through God. God reaches us through one another. 

What if we erase the distinction between those we think of as objects of our charity and evangelism and those who have something to give and to share? What if the “little ones” to whom we go have a saving message for the sake of OUR faith? 

It is possible that when you give a bottle of water or a dollar bill to a beggar on the side of the street that you are, in a way, offering a cup of cold water to Christ. The person to whom you are offering the Love of God might also be offering love to you – and from a perceptive very different from yours. 

One of the humbling and glorious lessons we can learn from receiving the Good News from unexpected places is this: Like the original disciples, all any of us really have to share is the Love of God. Doing that requires an act of trust. 

When you have no money, no health insurance, and your physical safety is threatened, then welcoming a stranger with trust is an astounding gift. It is humbling to be received in that way. That is the way I felt when a destitute elderly woman gave me eggs from her chickens. 

Like the early disciples she was a “little one.” And although she was welcoming me into her home for my mission, she was also on her own mission to share the love of God. My faith was strengthened because of her hospitality and my vision of God grew larger. 

“Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.”

As you go out into the world to share the love of God, be open to receiving it as well. Especially from those who have nothing but love to give you. 


In the Clouds

“Peter was still speaking when a cloud overshadowed them. As they entered the cloud, they were overcome with awe.” Luke 9:34

On Sunday, many observed the Feast of the Transfiguration, when we remember three disciples seeing Jesus’ appearance change before their eyes – and then saw Moses and Elijah talking to him. It is a spectacular, attention-grabbing vision. 

But I confess, when I consider that event this year, I am more focused on the cloud that enveloped them next. Perhaps it’s because of the summer we’re experiencing. Sometimes we don’t like clouds because they block the sun and bring rain – other times we long for them because they block the sun and bring rain.

Clouds are fascinating. If you’ve ever been in a cloud – or a thick fog, which is just a low hanging cloud – you know they have a strange quality. You can see and feel them, and yet not really. They seem solid and transparent at the same time. They block your views of distant things, but tend to really focus your attention on what is nearby. 

Clouds float between earth and sky, connecting the two. They are halfway between water and air. 

Clouds happen when water seems to defy gravity! I looked it up – the average cloud weighs about the same as a passenger airplane. Water on the earth’s surface warms up and evaporates as vapor, as it travels the tiny particles cool and condense into a cloud that we can see. And then, the water from the cloud can come back to us as rain or snow. 

The life cycle of a cloud is a visual way to think about communication between God and humankind. Think about us here on earth with all of our joys and sorrows, longings and fears, gatherings and scatterings rising up to God. And think about God raining steadfast love and guidance to us. 

Our relationship with God exists in a way that is like a cloud – it touches us and you can see its effects – but at the same time it is nebulous and hard to put your finger on. 

Clouds keep things livable on earth. They help water move around the planet to places that might not otherwise get it. They help us see and prepare for changes in weather patterns, protecting us from danger. 

And our relationship with God is like that, too. The cloud of our communication with our Creator helps love move to places and people that might not otherwise experience it. God helps us see and prepare for the repercussions of the storms we create with our choices and behaviors. God protects us with revelations. 

This cloud that surrounds Jesus, Peter, John, and James is not the first holy cloud. There are other key times in the history of God’s people when clouds make important appearances. 
A cloud guided the Israelites through the wilderness after they escaped slavery in Egypt.
A cloud surrounded Mount Sinai when Moses received the Ten Commandments.
After the Flood, God placed a bow in a cloud as a sign of the covenant between God and the earth.
People of faith talk about the encouragement we get from a “cloud of witnesses.” It is a cloud of the faithful who have preceded us and whose example surrounds us like droplets in a fog. example and love.

And in this moment, Jesus and three of his disciples are enveloped in a cloud at a particularly holy moment. This cloud doesn’t just surround them, it speaks to them, “This is my Son, my Chosen; Listen to him!”

What an intense experience of God! 

In this moment, the three followers of Jesus are reminded of the connection between Jesus and the Covenant that had bound God and Israel. Not only in the person of Moses who articulated that covenant to their ancestors, but also with Elijah who held generations accountable to that Covenant. 

And not only to Moses and Elijah, but now to Jesus, as well.

And as if it were not enough to see what they see, they are then enclosed in a cloud. Like the clouds that guided and protected their ancestors. 

This moment is not isolated – it is part of the continuing story of God’s relationship with us, amplified in Jesus Christ. The ancestors, the cloud – it is all reminiscent of things these disciples celebrated all year long every year in festivals and holy days, at the Temple and in their homes. This is not an isolated strange event on a mountain. Jesus is part of the long story of salvation and will carry that story forward. 

God meets us in clouds, even today. I think about that when I see steam rising from a puddle in the summer heat. Or as a low cloud forms when the warm water of Lake Austin touches cooler air in winter. 

Sometimes we get to see the way earth and water mingle with air and spirit and it reminds us that God is ever near, that God is infusing our lives and our world with love all the time. 

When we see these images of clouds — low and high, shading us or raining on us — it’s a reminder of the other times God has communicated with us and reminded us that we are connected.

It is in a cloud that Peter and James and John got the clearest vision of who Jesus is. All the other stimuli around them – the sky, the mountain – all of it was obscured from view and all they saw was Jesus. All they heard was God’s voice. 

We are often in clouds – 

Clouds of worry and confusion

Clouds that keep us from seeing as far ahead as we’d like

Goodness – our whole lives are saved and retrieved in information clouds!

When you are in a cloud consider that God may be meeting you there. Consider that the cloud you are in may not be cutting you off from life, but rather connecting you to the Source of Life. Eventually, like the disciples, you will come out of the cloud, but what you encounter there can stay with you and transfigure your life. 

Plan B

Last year at this time, anxiety was high among many of my friends and I. A leaked document from the Supreme Court indicated that they were about to make access to abortion difficult to impossible for American women. The language in the document was shocking.

And then it happened. The ruling came out with pretty much the same language as the leaked document. At least we had time to prepare? That felt like small comfort.

There are a lot of ways this ruling intersects with my life, but what I focused on was being a pastor and how I could support women and girls in my community. In my life, I’ve known women who have terminated their pregnancies for a range of reasons and it was hard to contemplate how their peers in this new landscape of reproductive health care options would fare. My first instinct was to purchase Plan B, the emergency contraceptive that prevents pregnancy after unprotected sex. After talking to some sister clergy I decided to keep it in my desk in my office at the church. It didn’t seem like a big help, but it is something.

I had hard talks with my daughter who is going on 16. More than half of high schoolers are sexually active and she already knows peers who have been raped, so this was not a theoretical conversation.

One of my clergy sisters gave me a “b” charm – “b” for Plan B – that I wore every day from the time I received it through the 2023 Texas legislative session. It helped keep me focused and reminded me that I was not alone in the struggle.

And I knew that that Texas legislative session would be brutal. Even though my state had already enacted a pretty restrictive law that is cruelly vague, I hoped to at least push for clarity if not actual rights.

But that’s now how things turned out in my state. Nothing happened to make things clearer on the issue of abortion. Instead we started worrying about other Plan Bs. The governor and the legislature targeted transwomen, transmen, and especially trans youth. They wanted to ban sports for trans students, ban gender affirming health care, ban books, define drag performances as sexually oriented, and replace school counselors with untrained religious chaplains. And that is what they did.

For some Texans this is leading to their own version of a Plan B, or even a Plan C. Families with trans youth who had been receiving or intended to receive gender affirming care contemplated moving out of the state. These heartbreaking cases are actually the lucky ones, they could afford to leave or send their children out of state for school. For most, that is not an option. Some trans adults are also moving or wish they could – it is hard to live in a state where you face persecution every day and hard when your children are exposed to that particular form of violence as well.

One of the things that has saddened me personally is the exodus of doctors from the state. You see, my dad was a pediatric endocrinologist. That is one of the specialities that provides gender affirming care to trans youth. While he was a researcher and medical school professor, he also saw patients, some of whom were intersex or had sex hormone dysfunction. I am imaging generations of his students now having to counsel young patients and their families, having to end a course of treatment that, although lifesaving, has now been made illegal.

Doctors are also making hard choices about whether to adapt their practice to new areas of endocrinology or leave the state so they can continue to provide gender affirming care. In addition to not being able to practice their field of medicine and properly treat their patients, they are being threatened. In case you don’t think this affects you, it might. Pediatric endocrinologists treat a range of conditions, from growth problems and diabetes to problems with the thyroid, pituitary, and adrenal glands. While some endocrinologists specialize in gender affirming care, some who are leaving are also taking their expertise in these other important areas with them.

Someday, I can have a fuller discussion about access to abortion care and gender affirming care. Right now I’m having a hard time getting past the fact that more and more people are being diminished, having their moral agency replaced by the judgment of a very few privileged people in power. The judgment of doctors who have years of training in medicine – including in ethics – is dismissed in favor of…what? I am not sure. Gut feelings? Personal religious conviction? A desire to be re-elected? The love of parents who invest their all into the care of their children is replaced with, based on what I heard, myth and hatefulness. In a state with alarmingly high rates of infant and maternal mortality, the focus of the Texas government seems tragically misdirected.

In the short term, I’m willing to be someone’s Plan B with regard to affirming their dignity and value as human beings.

Christian Nationalism is not Christian

There are times when the messages of my tradition resonate with what’s going on in my community more broadly. I love sharing my perspective while including or listening to other traditions in ways that increase our mutual understanding. But sometimes I hear things bubbling up within my religious tradition that are troubling, and I feel an urgency to speak to my own. This is one of those times. People are using the Christian tradition to promote ideas that are antithetical to the love of God and the messages of Jesus. This is my response to one of those troubling ideas. It is based on a sermon I preached on May 21, 2023.


“Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6)

This is the desperate question of the apostles when they realized that the Lord they loved and lost, who then came back to them, was leaving them again. When the trauma of crucifixion had passed and the shock of resurrection had sunk in, they confronted a new twist in the story of their journey with Jesus. He was leaving them again. He would ascend to the Father. Where does that leave them?

We can hardly blame them. After all, we know what happened after, we know what happened to them and because of them. But they were living it all in real time. And living through it in a harsh, brutal environment of occupation, violence, and poverty. No-one had ever experienced what they were about to experience. 

“Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom…is this the time when you will fulfill our dreams of controlling our own destiny, of living according to the covenant in the land you gave us? We’ve been expecting it for hundreds of years.” 

Indeed, God’s people have always been looking toward the fulfillment of God’s promise – of freedom from bondage, of a land of milk and honey, of a covenant community based in love. Like Abraham and Sarah, like Moses, like the exiles in Babylon – we are an expectant people always looking ahead, anticipating fulfillment of promise. Jesus’ followers are heirs of this expectation. And so are Jesus followers today. 

And yet time and again, we look for that fulfillment in social and political structures that are, let’s face it, too small for God’s promise. 

“Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?”

Jesus’ answer to them and to us is not what we want or expect to hear. He basically tells them three important things about God’s kingdom. It isn’t for you to know when or how God will establish the Kingdom.

And. The power you are expecting will not come from political or economic dominance but from the Holy Spirit.

And. Your role is to be witnesses to the power of the Spirit in ever widening circles – from where they are in Jerusalem to the region of Judea to their so-called enemies in Samaria and then to the entire world.

This new understanding of the Kingdom was radical and like nothing they had ever seen before. And yet they were to be witnesses to the whole world about it. It is much more comfortable to recreate the kind of kingdom that has already existed – maybe even a nicer version of the one you live in now. But that’s not what Jesus tells them. That is not the promise. 

They were focused on how the kingdom would be structured – who would be in charge, how power would be allocated and wielded, what the rules would be. But Jesus was pointing them away from structures and toward the content of the kingdom – which is love, the bonds of community that we have between us and that we have with God. 

We have seen this struggle play out over and over. Despite the witness of generations of Jesus followers, there have been calls for an earthly kingdom ever since. A couple of centuries after Jesus told the apostles they’d get spiritual power from the Holy Spirit, the church received political and military power from the Roman Empire – and carried the cross before armies. In the many years since, church leadership and national leadership have been intertwined or even fused together in various places and times. The church colluded with governments and monarchs to extend power around the globe, usually in brutal ways. Under the guise of bringing the love of Christ, they brought war, disease, and oppression.  

Today, the message of Jesus is important for us as we hear calls for Christian nationalism – both in our own country and in others. In some ways it is an understandable longing of people to control their destiny, to have a way to organize themselves that is based on faith and values. 

But there is a big problem with Christian nationalism. It is grounded in ideas that are antithetical to the desire of God. 

  • First of all, Nationalism of any kind is the belief that humans can and should be divided into distinct groups based on shared traits that are different from the traits of other groups.
  • Second that these nations should promote and protect their identity to the exclusion of others.
  • And third Christian nationalism in particular says that national identity is grounded in faith in Jesus Christ and that the government should take steps to keep it that way, using force if necessary. 

These characteristics fly in the face of what Jesus taught and his final message before he ascended to the Father. 

“It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:7-8)

Nationalisms of all kinds are contrary to the vision of God that all people share the trait of being created in God’s image and the mission of God for all of us to live in community. It is not the mission of the church to create divisions among people.

Jesus did not create disciples who would focus inwardly on their own political power. Jesus is sending disciples out into the world as witnesses to a different kind of power, the power of the Spirit. The Kingdom of God is a gathering of people from all nations, it unites people. It requires love, generosity, and going outward – not power, control, and pulling inward. 

“Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?”

Jesus shows them and us that the kingdom is bigger than we can imagine. Start where you are, he tells us, make God’s presence known there. Then go from where you are to other places where you are comfortable. Then go to people you despise, who make you uncomfortable. Then to people you don’t know at all and who are very different from you. 

This is the very opposite of nation-building. It is kingdom building. It is the mission for which the Holy Spirit has empowered us. 

There is room for you

When I was about 8 years old, my family – five of us at that time plus some cousins – went to the Smithsonian Institution. Specifically the National Museum of American History. At that time we lived in nearby Bethesda, MD, so we’d already seen the impressive monuments in Washington, but this was our first time going to one of the big museums. 

The whole gang of us parked, walked, and entered the massive building. Right away we saw the Star Spangled Banner, the flag that inspired Francis Scott Key to write what would become our national anthem. Honestly, I don’t remember much else about what we saw, the miles of corridors we walked. Except for the exhibit of First Ladies dresses, that enthralled me. All the different styles from very old to modern! The fabrics! The gloves! These were unlike any dresses I had ever seen in person. But I was sure I would wear something that elegant one day. To a ball, perhaps.

I walked from one inauguration gown to another. There were so many. And then I had seen them all and looked around for the next exhibit…and where was my family?

They were not there. Or in the next room. Or the next. I don’t remember being afraid – although I might have been. It was just confusing to be in a maze of rooms and halls. No matter where I turned I had no idea where I was. All I knew was that I was alone. My heart was troubled. 

Eventually I found a security guard and told him I was lost. He told me to follow him and we went back to the entrance where I stood next to a different guard. Together we watched people coming and going and chatted a bit. I got the feeling I was not the first lost child he supervised. 

After quite a while, I heard my mom call my name and she ran across the hall to hug me. Reunited! Everything was back to normal again. 

(Of course when this happened, I only thought about what I experienced. With hindsight, I can imagine what my parents and siblings were thinking! It is never an easy thing to manage multiple children in an unfamiliar museum.)

I think of this story often because it is a good memory – of my getting so absorbed in the exhibit, of being cared for by strangers (I have to admit I felt important standing next ot the guard at the door,). Mostly I love the part about being found. 

Today I think of this story because being lost is a great metaphor for what mental illness is like for many people. It certainly is for me. May is Mental Health Awareness Month and a good time to consider what life is like for people who live with mental illness, as well as what our faith has to say about it. 

Stories of being lost and found, of having a place to BE are central to my faith tradition. They are often the themes of parables or the great narratives of our ancestors. Being lost and found is a great way to think about our relationship to the God who created and loves us. 

John’s gospel tells a story about Jesus telling his disciples that he will soon leave them, and not in a pleasant way. They’re not too keen on the idea. 

Jesus said, “Do not let your hearts be troubled.”

For many, mental illness feels like a troubled heart. It can feel like not fitting in or not feeling at home anywhere. It can feel like the disciple Thomas might have felt when he tried to understand where Jesus was going. Jesus said to him, “You know the way to the place where I am going.” 

Thomas then asked, “How can we know the way?”

One in five of us will experience mental illness in a given year – sometimes it is an episode brought on by trauma or a specific event. For others it is chronic and managed over a lifetime. 

And if 20% of us HAVE a mental illness, you can do the math and realize that almost all of us know it through someone we love. If you think you don’t, you do now. I have depression. So now you know someone with a mental illness. 

Despite being so common – and in many cases very treatable – these illnesses carry a lot of stigma. What that means in practical terms is that people either isolate themselves out of shame that they are crazy, lazy, or incompetent. Or they are isolated by others because they are judged to be scary, weird, or immoral. 

What ends up happening in way too many cases is that people feel like like a kid lost in a museum – not sure if they wandered away or were abandoned, but either way they are in an unfamiliar place with no idea how to get un-lost. 

If you’ve ever felt that way, you are not alone. 

Think of all the people in your life who might feel this way – people with depression, anxiety, substance use disorders, bipolar disorder, PTDS, schizophrenia…

Think about people who’ve faced violence or poverty or abuse, which can cause trauma…

Think about people who are isolated due to illness or disability or language barriers…

Think of all the people who care for them. 

All of them feeling lost and without a place to be at home. 

All of them with troubled hearts. 

This kind of feeling might apply to a group of disciples who just found out their friend and teacher is about to be betrayed and is going to leave them. 

We have hope. We are not forever lost. In my tradition, Jesus tells us that God has a place for us and that place is in the very life of God with all of God’s other beloved children. 

Jesus tells his troubled disciples, “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?”

Jesus’ friends have troubled hearts, and Jesus offers them the comfort of togetherness, of being in a big house with room prepared just for them. 

It is important to notice the order of events here – 

We are lost and God comes to us

We suffer – Jesus suffers – and then we have a home in God. 

God goes through our traumas with us. With our depression and alcoholism and mood disorders and grief. And on the other side of all that is not isolation, but a home together. 

There will be a place for you. There is a place for you. 

The relationship with God is ongoing through suffering to the other side. God comes to us in the midst of our lives and carries our entire, broken selves into God’s own life. Into God’s House. 

Imagine your life as being like a big museum and you feel lost wandering the halls and rounding the corners. You keep hoping to see a familiar face or to even know where you are. 

Imagine a helper who stands with you while you wait, is present with you so that you are not alone. 

And imagine being found! Having the God who loves you run across a big empty hall to embrace you like my mom did when she found me. 

God is faithful to us. God is faithful to you. 

When you feel isolated – either because you are pulling back from others or feel they are pulling  back from you – please know that there is a room for you in the very life of God.

Walking in circles

When my husband worked in New York, we used to walk to a nearby grocery and in the sidewalk outside their door was a circle of bird footprints. Forever fixed there in the cement. A permanent record of this one bird’s confused journey to nowhere.

Or perhaps it wasn’t confused at all. How would I know? I am not a bird. It is possible this bird knew exactly why it was going in a circle.

Circles take us back to places we’ve been before, and I am a fan of revisiting places and people. There is a lot of pressure in life to go ever forward, to make “progress.” That may work for some, but I find circling back to the familiar comforting and challenging, familiar and revealing all at once.

As I leave one calendar year and enter another, I hope to keep circling past people and places I’ve seen before, even as I discover new things. Sometimes when you circle past pain you find healing, when you revisit resentment you can find forgiveness, when you return to the times you were inadequate you find that you are, in fact, enough.

When I first saw it I laughed. Not so much at the bird, but more because that circle made me think of what my journey must look like from such a vantage point, from above looking down. Am I going in a straight line? A circle? Am I going anywhere?

When you live your life in circles, you can keep people with you that you’ve met the last times around. People who are lovely and frustrating and mean and generous and who can teach you things about life that no one can learn on their own. Most of what I’ve learned about myself and about life I’ve learned from the people in my circles.

Round and round we go.

Happy New Year. May your life take you where you need to go and I hope you circle around to me as you go about your way.