A new year! Whew. I don’t know about you, but these years these days are little like birthdays have become in my gathering dotage. Eh! Or even: Ugh! What new strange things will 2022 bring us? What hurdles will we get to jump this year? How often will we find ourselves not jumping high enough to clear the hurdle?
There are always new things God is doing, of course, in addition to the challenges and hurdles. Our God never rests. And new things are kind of God’s main business. January is part of the season we call Epiphany – the season not of hurdles, but of God’s light breaking through. Epiphany begins with God’s light being so bright to some foreign wise ones that they journey from Persia to Bethlehem looking to see the light. But you need to have special glasses of wisdom and faith on to see this light. For most of the world, I guess, this light was not even noticed. After all, it was a poor baby born to a poor woman and a man who were not even married. God was doing a new thing. So it goes again and again in the stories of Epiphany. God breaks in with something new that many folks don’t understand or welcome. Only people who take the time to put on their wisdom and faith glasses get to see that Jesus comes out of the baptismal waters to the voice of God and a mission like no other. Only people who are willing to do more than just party notice that the best wine at the wedding comes when Jesus changes the waters of purification into a celebration. Only the few who climb all the way up the mountain with Jesus get to see the light that surrounds him in white and the appearance of Elijah and Moses in the Transfiguration – God doing a new twist.
When I find myself in the fatigue about these days, I try to put on some wisdom and faith glasses to see just what God might be up to knew to transfigure the darkness into light. God did this before – the scriptures are full of stories of God doing this. And God will do this again. Just because the scriptures end doesn’t mean God has stopped acting. And it also doesn’t mean we don’t need to put on some hiking boots to climb the mountain with Jesus. The light is still breaking through.
As people of faith, God has graced us with eyes to see, glasses of wisdom and faith. And our world so desperately needs to know this is not just our world, but God’s world where new things and great light are breaking in every moment. Some days, the light is like the glow of Jesus transfigured. But somedays, it’s a silent darkness that still speaks a whisper of God’s new life. That poor baby sitting in the feeding trough with a dirty diaper and crying may not look like much, but there is light there like no other if we learn to see as God sees.
Whatever 2022 brings – the good and the bad – there will be one thing for sure: God will be bringing light. So put on your wisdom and faith glasses and let’s see what we can find for a world that needs a new light still.
Advent is my favorite season of the year. All the waiting and wonder and expectation and hope are, well, wonderful. And to work and wait for a Light that is eternal and always beyond all my work during the season when so many are busy stringing temporary lights and decorations of a rather superficial happiness, helps me to remember what I am – what we as Christians are – about. The Light of the World is breaking in. And after pandemic, the Christmas decorations go up earlier and earlier still in hopes of standing against the darkness of this crazy world. They may help a bit – I love all the lights and decorations and many do point to the Light that never goes out. What do you do in Advent to reach beyond the temporary distractions of our lives to the ultimate Light of the world? In these days of winter darkness and chill, of all manner of political darkness in our country and in the world, in the darkness of a pandemic, where can you find and be the Light that never goes out? How can we give this Light to others who are struggling in the darkness? And where is your darkness? There are the darknesses of old age and loss, of economic challenge, of moral confusion, and of so many other sorts. How can you walk courageously through that darkness holding onto the Light of the World? And how can you help someone else along the way? These are a few of the joys and challenges of Advent. May you hope throughout these days. May you seek and search with expectation that God will bring the fullness of time, the Light of the World to our world.
I grew up watching the movie White Christmas every year. And I remember well Bing Crosby and Rosemary Clooney singing about falling asleep counting your blessings instead of sheep. It’s not a bad way to fall asleep, of course. But lists of good things have a way of becoming overwhelming or even falling apart. What I have learned to do instead is think about why I believe I have been blessed and what I can do with the overwhelming sense of gratefulness life gives me. I am blessed most fundamentally because that is what God does; God is in the making blessed business. And God has made each of us and blessed us with life and love and faith and … well, there’s the beginning of that list again. My point is this: we are each blessed because God is God. There is so much in this world and in our lives to be grateful for. There are more blessings than we can count. And we could sit up all night with Bing and Rosemary counting our blessings and not put a dent in the list.
Sometimes rather than counting my blessings, it seems to me to be very good and right to get up out of bed and give blessings out myself. If God is in the making blessed business, then God’s people are to be in that business, too! We sometimes call this “ministry,” but really it’s probably better to just live it out in every thing we do and who we are; it’s better to always live in gratefulness. I know many families will gather around the table on Thanksgiving Day and let each person say one thing they are grateful for. This can be lovely, of course. But let me suggest a twist this year. Ask everyone at your Thanksgiving table to say one thing they are going to do for others out of their gratefulness for life.
One of the richest blessings of a church community is the many ways we come together to live out the gratefulness we feel for life and for our loving God; what joy there is in all the ways we live out our grate fulness in action and love for one another, our community, and God’s world. We worship together around the Eucharistic table, the altar, the thanksgiving table. (Remember Eucharist is just the Greek word for Thanksgiving.) We offer our voices in singing and reading and praying -- and our hearts and souls as well. And when one of us is sick, we help out. When someone in the community needs help, we try to be there for them. When the world aches, we, the grateful Body of Christ, reach out with healing. And just as there is really no end to our gratefulness, there is no end to the work of life to make the whole creation groan with gratefulness. What gift of yourself will you offer to others and to God as we celebrate the day of giving thanks, knowing that it is not about just one day, but about a way of being alive?
A superficial cut is a good thing; it heals pretty quickly. Not many other things superficial are worth much. Most
often they are worse than that; superficial things and thinking can lead us astray or distract us from the deeper
realities and truths.
I recently had one of those sales pitches offered to me by a man that tried to show me how financially beneficial
it would be for me to buy his product. Looking carefully at his numbers, it may have been advantageous for me
to actually buy what he was selling. But here’s the thing. However much money must figure into my life and
decisions, money cannot be the final reason for me to do something. God is the final reason. If I am going to
make money, great. But if I make money at the expense of God or God’s justice and truth, then I can make all the
money I want, but I’m really building a house on sandy ground, and it will wash away at some point. My money,
my time, my life and all are gifts from God that I am blessed to have and share with others for the good of God.
Anything less than that is foolishness or sinfulness, or more likely both.
Now making decisions in life deeper than the superficial and grounded in God, is no easy thing. I find that it’s not
just a matter of working hard to “know all the facts.” It’s a matter of praying constantly until I begin to see with
God’s vision. And it’s cumulative. If I make a big decision for the quick income boost rather than out of a deeper
vision of my life and God’s world, that has repercussions that last and last and are detrimental. And when I am
led into a good decision by God, that also has repercussions and helps me see the wider horizon and deeper way
of living God is calling me into all the time.
How do you make your financial decisions? How deeply do you go? How much is your faithfulness and God’s way
a part of your decisions? Some folks seem to think the church is “meddling in their personal lives” when we bring
up money. And I bristle myself when I see “church” throw guilt about in order to make a church budget. But God
is not meddling in your personal affairs. God is already right there and a major part of your personal affairs.
All this means that, as we look at our pledges and gifts to the church for 2022 in the month ahead, you won’t be
hearing from me that you must give 10% of your household budget, a Biblical tithe, or suffer the consequences.
(The tithe is a very helpful guideline, but it is a guideline, not a rule. How does your giving relate to the tithe is a
good question!) You also won’t hear me asking you to give a certain amount so that the church bills get paid – a
simple tit for tat transaction like the bills we pay. You can’t buy worship or the pastoral care. You are not paying
for classes or other activities at Kingston Parish. When you give for God, you give for different reasons, for the
good of God in a whole new way that is deeper and truer and infinitely bigger than the superficial products you
get or give in a year at Kingston. Giving out of God’s abundant gifts of life is not just a transaction, but a holy
action. It’s about thanksgiving and hopefulness and the dream that God’s will can be done on earth as it is in
heaven. I urge you not to be superficial as you think about your pledge to Kingston and all the rest of your
finances for 2022. Give instead with faithfulness, gratefulness, joy. This is not pie in the sky impractical, but
incarnational and more real than any superficial amount you figure with a pencil on a page once all the other
bills are paid. When it comes to money issues, God actually affects the bottom line. May God bless you in this
season when we look at our finances with God’s vision and a hopefulness that means your financial choices are
not made out of fear but out of faith.
We are born into this world longing. Infants first long to return to the safety of the womb. They may not “consciously” know this, but the cries of a newborn are cries to return to what they knew of the womb. That longing transforms in a relatively brief time into wanting to be cuddled and fed. As we grow up, the longings become more complicated. We long for that certain tasty dish of food we had once long ago. We long for a friend, a beloved, a trip to the Caribbean, protection for our loved ones, a cure for cancer, success, a political agenda, the end of prejudice and economic disparity, the reign of God ....We all probably know a marriage of dear friends somewhere along the way that crashed largely because the couple had lost the ability to long for one another’s company and companionship; they took each other for granted, lost the longing for more, and somehow the love seemed to fade with the longing.
St. Augustine of Hippo wrote: “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in You.” At the root of all our longings is the one longing to be in perfect communion with God. What are you longing for these days? And how does that longing play out for you in your relationships with others and with God?
I seem to be going through a period of especially intense longing. I long for deeper friendships. I long for more and deeper life at Kingston Parish. As I deal with people struggling with finances in our area and the sick and the grieving in our congregation, I long for healing and hope. And in some way, my longings are not likely to be fulfilled. As Jesus put it: “the poor will always be with you.” I will always want more friends. I will always wish and work for more for Kingston Parish just as I long for more for my own children. And I long for God. I long for a prayer life that doesn’t have days when I don’t feel very connected or focused. I long for a faith that knows what I am really called to do today and for the future. I long for a certainty that the great mystery of God never affords. And in momentary flashes of deeper wisdom, which is about as close as I get to wisdom, I know that the longings of my life are themselves gifts. Longing to love more is love. Longing for God more is faith. We so often tell ourselves that we want to “possess” the answers, success, our goals, whatever. But the deepest most important things in life – especially people and God, are not ours to possess. Even we ourselves are not in our own grasp in some ways. I am most alive when I am not in control, but in God’s mysterious grasp. Longing is a gift. Waiting, wanting, searching, aching and groaning for more – they are all part of the journey that never ends, the eternal life God gives us in abundance. May you and I always yearn for more of God.
I was recently with some friends who were talking about the things they learned through the pandemic. And I was surprised at how many good things everyone had learned. “I actually need to do less and enjoy more.” “I discovered daily prayer and Bible reading, and I’m never going back.” “I discovered I can say ‘no’ to things I don’t find interesting or life-giving.” The list went on and on. Not small stuff! Big discoveries that came only because we had time to not do all the things we thought we’d do if we had the time. What did you discover about yourself, or about God, or about “life” over the last two years?
I say I was surprised at how many beautiful and positive things came out of hardship and challenge. I have been trying to follow Christ for most of my life, so I shouldn’t have been surprised, of course. It’s in the storms on the lake that the disciples discover who Jesus really is. It's among the sick and the poor. It’s among the hungry when there isn’t enough food. So why was I surprised that the deepest life might be in the loneliness and uncertainties of these recent times? Of course, God redeems the darkest Good Friday and our own dark days. As we look ahead to August, I am hearing rumblings of a roller coaster with some more masks and social distancing and, therefore, perhaps days without singing in worship or even in-person worship together again. I don’t know where we’re headed. And I dread the uncertainties and difficult possibilities. But I have learned what I have been taught by the Holy Spirit so many times before. Challenges in life are inevitable. But God is there and great good comes out of even the darkest storms.
I am so grateful to be with you all through these strange and dark days. I am grateful for the days we can gather together and hug and sing God’s praise. And, while I have to work at it a little more, I am trying to be grateful for the darker days as well. It is a blessing to be with you and to know we all have God with us through all of this. May the worst storms be past, but if that is not the way it shall be, then may we weather the storms together and for others in need in the arms of one who walks on water and calms the storms; the one who dies a terrible death on a cross only to bring us all home through every storm life might offer us. How have you met Jesus in the storm and how will you be with him in the days of clearing and new beginnings?
“Today is the first day of the rest of your life.” Or so the saying goes. And then there’s the darker or somewhat funny version: “Today is the first day of what’s left of your life.” There’s the poet, Mary Oliver’s, most beautiful version: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” Perhaps the Old Testament version is Joshua’s words: “Choose this day who you will serve!” And Jesus’s version is: “Who do you say that I am?”
As we come out of pandemic with fits and starts, it is this discombobulation of questions that won’t leave me alone. And I feel it chew at me not only personally but for our church, the Episcopal Church, the Christian church, and the world. Who are we as we come out of pandemic? How have we changed? How are we able to choose to be more clearly, strongly, truly people of the living Christ? The layers and possibilities are daunting! Am I praying the way I want to pray, listening for God in all my life? Am I choosing to do the things for ministry that are really helping people and God? Is my worship of God rich for God or simply what I want to do? How do I love my neighbor? How do I love God? How do I love myself?
And for a couple months now, I have waited patiently for God to give me a clear and simple answer, but here’s the thing: in the beautiful complexity of our wild and precious lives clear and simple answers are rare indeed. The closest we come is probably Jesus’ summation of the law: “Love God and love your neighbor as yourself.” But love is a loaded word. And really so are the words God, neighbor and self. What that looks like today for me is probably different from what that looks like for you today. And neither of us can guess what it will look like tomorrow or the next day! Jesus spoke of following him and living in the way. Long before followers of Jesus were called “Christian” in Antioch, we were called “people of the Way.” Sometimes I fear we are people in God’s way – impediments to the Kingdom. So perhaps that is a signpost for our way forward: how do I/we live in a way that doesn’t get in God’s way?
As we move into this new day, let us examine what we are about as individuals and
as a church. Let us pray and listen for God’s voice. Let us explore The Way. And perhaps we should even spend less time trying to measure just how far down the way we are getting toward success or the Kingdom or God or whatever we imagine is at the end of the Way. Perhaps our task is to live fully on the way. What is it that you and I will do with the precious gifts of life and time and love we have been given in these days?
But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.
-- Jeremiah 31:33 (with a near exact repeat in Hebrews 10:16)
After those days. We are the people after those days. Or at least we are getting there. As I write this, we have reported no new cases of COVID-19 in the last seven days in Mathews County for the first time in a long time! (See later in the newsletter for news about what we will be doing with worship and ministry in these days.) How have those days – the days of pandemic – changed you and changed our church? Do you feel the law of God more deeply written on your heart? Do you know better than ever that you are God’s own child?
What has changed? And how are you reacting? I know, for myself, the deep importance of relationships with family, friends, and church has been written large. And the rushing from one activity to the next to do something “worthy” seems much less attractive. How will I make sure I have time to be with the people God has given me to love in this life and not feel I have to prove myself good enough by keeping busy? What can I change to be more present to God and God’s people?
For some time now, I have been praying and reading and struggling for an answer. I have been having rich and wonderful discussions with some of you in our Adult Class on Coming out of Exile. So what am I -- what are we – supposed to DO differently? There have been no great epiphanies with clear answers. Change is coming; change has come; but it all is happening at its own pace and in its own fashion. I am not in control. And recently, this is what I discovered: God has written on my heart. God has written in your heart, too. Just listen each day, read your heart as you prepare for every decision you make. And remember that you and all your beloved are God’s people.
As we gather back for in-person worship indoors, I still hold a little fear that we will be part of another COVID outbreak. I harbor fear about how I and we are going to miss many folks who have died or moved away more deeply when we see the empty pews and chairs. I wonder if some of our ministries that have not been happening may not be the ministries we are called to do in this new day. I am sad to know that a few church members have been angry and disappointed that I and our Bishop have held to the CDC guidelines for safety through the pandemic. In a time of political polarities, we have God’s deep reconciliation to work out with fear and trembling, forgiveness, and hope for the Unity of the Holy Spirit.
I could be overwhelmed by the negative now as we come out of pandemic; the exile of pandemic may be ending, but the new world emerging is still daunting and full of possible trouble. There are so many positives as well! We have survived as individuals and as a church! We not only survived, but we have lived out being the church in so many ways – helping the community, worshipping, praying – with flexibility and faithfulness. People have offered their financial support for our work in so many ways; we are not out of the financial woods completely as a church, but your generous faithfulness is an inspiration and will enable us to do the work of ministry in the days to come. We have learned new things, grown in faith, deepened our connections to one another. Even on zoom we have grown community! We have added new members and are finding a new energy to welcome and find more new members. We are a stronger, more faithful church because of what we have been through together. We were faithful in those days and God is doing new things with us now in these days! It is still hard to guess where we are headed and how we will get there, but we have people to love, the poor and broken to care for, and a God to worship and follow. And as we struggled together through those dark days, the deepest truths of all creation have been written with the divine hand on our hearts. May we go forth from those days and into these days as God’s own people!
Living in a time of great transition is exhausting! And exhilarating! I suspect you know what I mean. And church exists incarnate; the Body of Christ is a body of people in the real world, so there’s plenty of exhausting and exhilarating stuff among us just like everywhere else.
One of the transitions we are living through right now is the number of people in our congregation who have moved away. The majority of our parishioners have moved, it seems, into God’s loving, heavenly arms or to Williamsburg. And God is in Williamsburg, too, no doubt. We have all needed to spend some time grieving the loss of these members of our church family wherever they went. And in most cases we weren’t able, because of pandemic, to go by the house the day before moving to send them off with a blessing and a bag of cookies or, if they died, be present at a celebration of their life and resurrection. But here’s the flip side of that coin: there have also been many new people moving into our area. Each empty house goes to a new family. Pandemic has meant we haven’t been out and about bringing them into the fold as much as we used to. We haven’t even been able to have the doors open to invite folks in to our in- person worship services or other events. We have, of course, reached many folks with our online presence. Last week we reached over 300 different people with a couple of our online posts and many of those people stayed for a full worship service or engaged in another meaningful way. And some of those people live far away; still, something we said and did may have brought them into God’s fold. One of the things we are surely called to do by God is bring folks into the fold. Now, we know that not everyone likes the Episcopal way of doing things and they might be happier elsewhere. God still loves them and so should we. But there are likely to be many people – perhaps more since the shake-down of the pandemic which has re- minded all of us of what is really important – who would find life and joy among us at Kingston – both online and in person. How do we reach them? How do we invite them? How can we be neighbors who love our neighbors enough to show them the way to life we value deeply in our church life?
One way to help bring others, is to think for yourself: how did I arrive in God’s loving arms? How did I discover the richness of the Episcopal Church? And why do I keep coming back for more? Why am I growing in my love for God each day? The ways God has touched you among us at Kingston may just reveal how others might be touched by God and find new life.
You might tell a neighbor who doesn’t even know they need Kingston: We have a loving community with great people! And they might reply: “I already belong to the country club and actually I go to AA, which is the best community of loving people I know.”
We at Kingston do lots of great community service and make a difference in Mathews. And they might re- ply: “I’ve been a member of Rotary all my adult life and find plenty of ways to make a difference there.”
We have two new organs and lots of great music programs planned for worship and for concerts. And they might reply: “Oh, I go to music concerts all the time and have season tickets to the symphony.”
So what does Kingston offer that nobody else does? We offer a deeper meaning and direction for life in faith. And we offer that in a way that allows each of us to question and explore rather than expecting us to have all the doctrinal answers. We live deeply into the mystery of living deeply -- which means we do work in the community, but not just to do good, but to love God and neighbor. We are a loving community that looks out for one another when we need help, because God is always showing us how to love. And we have beautiful worship, music, and share other experiences of beauty because we know God is the creator of all joy and beauty and love and these things connect us with the divine.
The trick, of course, is offering this depth without sounding like you’re selling a magic tonic or trying to “save a soul” in a superficial sort way. So often, it helps to know deeply how you experience the mystery of God in your life so you can share that mystery and attending joy with others.
Why do you come to Kingston? And how can you help others find the riches you have? And who is new in your neck of the woods who just may need in their life what we at Kingston have found and share?
Our Crier newsletter this month is coming out just before our Holy Week celebration as we move toward Easter. On the last night of Jesus’ earthly human life, he went to pray and asked his friends to follow him and pray also. So we gather as Jesus’ friends in our own day for Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, and Good Friday. We walk the prayer walk with Jesus through these last days of denial and betrayal and what looks like ultimate failure in a violent death on the cross because Jesus wants us there and because there is really no other way to get to Easter and Resurrection. The way is rich and powerful and sorrowful and dark; but it is the only way to the Easter light.
This year, we will do a hybrid of online worship mixed with a few opportunities to worship together out- doors. We do all our worship with safety precautions for ourselves and each other and our community, be- cause that’s what Christian people do, living for the larger community. But we also do so without the safe- ty net of just “going to church.” We go – online, in-person, and in our private prayers – to be with Jesus through difficult days. We seek to pick up our own cross and follow him. We recognize our place in the crowd that calls out “crucify him!” We allow ourselves to know the agony of Jesus’ mother, Mary, at the cross. We know we can get too busy to risk the full presence of our lives at the Last Supper or in prayer in Gethsemane or even at Golgotha. Part of us would like the happy ending of Easter without the challenges and darkness that gets us there.
I hope you will find the deep desire in you to be present with Jesus through all the days of Holy Week. When you find yourself overwhelmed with the sorrow and hatred, find a friend or loved one to walk with you. And when the time comes, courageously stand with Mary and the Beloved Disciple at the cross as our God dies in love for us. The more you and I can experience this, the more we will know what it means to stand at the tomb and have Jesus, resurrected, call our name.
The Very Rev. Gary Barker