I’m no longer calling you servants because servants don’t understand what their master is thinking and planning. No, I’ve named you friends because I’ve let you in on everything I’ve heard from the Father.
- Jesus is John 15:15
How are you God’s friend? And how is God your friend? For most of my life, friendship has not been the way I have understood my relationship with God. I usually waffle between “God is my Lord, and I just say ‘yes sir!’” and “God created me and inspires me and it’s my job to make sense of the puzzle of life with God’s help.” The truth is, I often don’t understand what the master is thinking and planning.
Still I do think God has a relationship with us that is strangely best characterized as friendship. One of the earliest images of God is the one Adam and Eve go walking with “in the cool of the evening.” That sounds pretty friendly.
What does it look like to be in a close “friendly” relationship with the divine master of all that is? Strangely, this God of ours wants us to be at his side, not groveling beneath him. While no single image in our own experience is going to make complete sense of God who is always beyond our understanding and wildest dreams, there is also this real sense that God wants to take walks with us, wants to know us intimately like a good friend, wants us to be there for him as he is there for us – not just as an heroic power, but as a person who loves and cares for us.
As we prepare for the Sabbatical that is coming in September, one of the things we all will be asked to explore is what does it mean to have a faithful friendship with the Almighty? Something in us may cringe at the thought of having a buddy in the divine. And there is something right about that cringe. But there is also something strangely wrong about it. When Jesus is preparing for the cross, what he wants is some of his closest friends to pray with him, to stay awake and be there with him.
How odd of God to make us friends. Yet God is odd indeed to our ways of thinking. And we can do few things as wonderful as take some time in the cool of the evening or the middle of the night or any other time to walk and be with the one who gives us life.
One of the most spiritual and important places for me to visit on our recent pilgrimage to the Celtic Holy Land was St. Cuthbert’s Island just a mucky walk away at low tide from Lindesfarne or Holy Island in the Northeast of England. St. Cuthbert (635-687) was Lindesfarne’s bishop and abbot of the local monastery; he would go off to the little island to be alone and pray, to set aside the formidable responsibilities of his everyday work, and to rest in Sabbath peace. I think of this as I prepare to go on Sabbatical at the begin-
ning of September. I wonder if Cuthbert worried about leaving behind his people to be alone the way I am worried about being separated from you all for three months. Like the little island, this time is not forever and will be done in the blink of an eye. And it will be important for you and for me to use that blink for good prayer and rest and whatever else God throws our way. I know you all will continue without me just fine. You will have a very special interim rector in the Rev. Jen Kimball. You have a good, strong vestry to help with the daily life of the parish. And you have an amazing and gifted senior warden in Valerie Lewis. Karen Jones, our parish administrator, will continue to anchor us all as she does when I am here. All shall be well and very well!
We have been blessed to receive a Lilly Grant for this Sabbatical which will allow me to travel away and will pay for Jen’s priestly service and leadership for the three months I am gone. Jen will be here about half -time, offering the regular Sunday services, pastoral care as needed, and some time in the office. I, on the other hand, will be out of contact for the three months. Part of the requirement of the Lilly Grant – and basic good practice for a sabbatical – is to be out of the regular daily and pastoral loop of the congregation. After six plus years with you all, you are a big part of my family, and it will be a difficult spiritual discipline to be out of touch with you all for this time. Still, I know you all will take good care of each other and be in good care with the parish leadership.
The focus of the sabbatical time will be on Christian Friendship. I am not talking about a superficial coffee hour acquaintance, but deep true love and care for one another in the presence of Christ. It is strange at first glance that we will be centering ourselves on that idea by being separated. Yet part of what made Cuthbert a saint among his people even while he was still alive was his ability to separate from them for prayer and centering. He modelled that for his monks and the people of his diocese as Jesus had modelled it before him. And the people also lived their lives centered in the same prayer and peace. It will not be only my charge to go apart and rest and pray and center in God. It is also your charge during this Sabbatical. I will talk more about this in the weeks to come before we begin Sabbatical, but it is good to begin our work ahead of September. How are you in communion with your brothers and sisters in Christ? What does it mean to you to be grounded in the body of Christ? How do you live that out and how might you try something new with that as part of your Sabbatical journey? Perhaps that is as simple as taking some time the next time you have a social dinner with some of your church friends to say: “Let’s talk for a minute about a special experience we have had at church or with God.” Perhaps that is too mechanical and there is something else that would be meaningful. There will be a couple opportunities that Jen will offer in some form in the course of my time away. Perhaps those will give you direction. I prepare for Sabbatical with about equal part excitement and trepidation. But my expectations are high. I expect God is working in us to do things we can hardly yet imagine. And when I return this coming Advent season, I expect that we will all be more deeply and truly friends in Christ and that grounding will make us better ministers of God’s Grace and love.
God’s Peace, Gary+
In just over a week now a group of 12 pilgrims from Wabingston -- 9 from Kingston -- will be beginning a pilgrimage to the holy land of the Celtic Christians in Scotland and Northumbria (Northeast England). While the rest of us will not be getting on the plane, this puts me in mind of the fact that we are all pilgrims. Pilgrimage begins in God and ends in God -- not just in one holy place or another. Pilgrimage is life and death and eternity. And so, especially in these Great 50 Days of Easter, we are reminded we are not
just pilgrims on any journey, but pilgrims of the cross and the empty tomb. We journey with Jesus resurrected with wounds in his eternal body to discover where the darkness of this world and light of Christ become one in God's salvation. As pilgrims we are walking the way that leads us to discover how the pains and struggles, momentary glories and laughter, our deepest loves are all wound up in God's glory. In his novel called Godric, Frederick Buechner has the Celtic saint Godric pray: "be thine wounds that heal our wounding. Press thy bloody scars to ours that thy dear blood may flow in us and cleanse our sins." It is the great Pascal (Easter) mystery, that the cross and hatred of human hearts is redeemed into a sign of eternal love and life. "Laugh till you weep. Weep till there's nothing left but to laugh at your weeping. In the end it's all one," Buechner's Godric counsels. May each of you, my beloved pilgrims, laugh and weep yourselves into the journey to eternal life beside our Lord Jesus this Pascal season and, of course, for forevermore.
What is at the heart of our Christianity? Certainly there is the Grace that welcomes all of us just as we are. Forgiveness. Sacrifice. The ultimate healing and wholeness (shalom) in the salve of salvation. There is God’s love embodied in the way we love others; in the way we know we are in communion with all that is. There is that overwhelming gratefulness we feel and live with as people of God.
As we move into the last few weeks of lent and prepare for the festival that is resurrection, we also know that at the heart of our Christianity is this dark and glorious piece of timber called the cross. It is the place where God’s verticality (heaven’s awesome perfection) meets God’s creation (our half-asleep and incomplete everyday). It is where the immortal and most holy dies in helpless degradation. It is the place where our God of all hopefulness cries out in ultimate despair. At the cross all our hatreds (not forgiveness), all our limited and limiting values (you did wrong Jesus and must pay), all our brokenness (broken? I’m not broken, this little Galilean is broken) meet up with a love that sacrifices everything.
How are you preparing to meet the cross that is at our heart this season? What does it look like to not only stand at the cross in sadness, but partake of the cross until we find the life that is in it? How can we knit ourselves together in such a way that God’s awesome vertical perfection crosses into our everyday lives with a passionate love that changes the world?
Get out there, my friends. Go forth. And carry your cross.
Jesus said to them: “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat.
Then there came cell phones and the buzz of constant information on screens and cars to race about in. And, for some, retirement without clear definitions of time – no clock to punch.
How do you go with Jesus away to a deserted place? We do it together in worship and in our education programs, I think. But we each need more time than that, time alone with God for Sabbath when we can be still and know God and the goodness of God’s image in us without a list of things to do.
Jesus modelled this for us beautifully. He is forever disappearing to be alone in prayer. And when he is present with people he is PRESENT.
I find this back and forth between action and prayer and reflection always a work in progress. The occasions when I really find it, I am blessed and so are the folks who get to see not just me fully PRESENT, but God working through me.
What does that look like for you? How do you find the balance of grounding yourself in God and stepping out to do the work God calls us each to do?
And a few words about your priest and this Sabbath:
It’s about everything. It’s how you understand yourself and your relationship to everyone and everything – from the trash you recycle or don’t recycle to, well, God. We call it stewardship – the care for all that is from our money, to our stuff, to our bodies and spirits, our relationships with others and our relationship with God.
The longer I live, the more I realize how it all connects together. The way I take care of my time – balance exercise with prayer and work with rest – not only says much about what I value, but it also makes me who I am. I learned long ago that one of the ways I can be a good steward of the work God blesses me with as a priest is to be sure I start each day working on my relationship with God. My morning prayers are not just a nice thing I do because I “should,” they are the ground of my being, my relationship with God and others, my life.
So too, of course, the ways we live with money say so much about our values, our faith, our lives. As one of my theology professors used to put it: “Your check book is a theological document.” How you relate to the abundance God gives you says everything about how you understand who you are in relationship with God.
So stewardship is about so much more than just the pledge card you put in the offering plate and the church budget. How do you understand your financial gifts for the work of the church? And how does that understanding make you a better follower of Jesus? How do you engage your body, soul, and mind into the ministry you are called to perform – not only by financial proxy, but incarnate in your choices and compassion, your hopefulness and engagement?
How much of “your” time do you give to God? How much of your heart and soul and energy? How much are you willing to spend in prayer? How much do you give up so that you can give to God and others? How is your sacrifice like Jesus’? When asked what the most important thing is, Jesus says: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind and love your neighbor as yourself.” How does your stewardship of everything reflect that? And how can each of us move closer to Jesus’ ideal this year?
Baptism is death and birth. In the water and by the Holy Spirit, we die with Jesus to be reborn into eternal life. We’ve all heard the theology. And most of us have been “marked as Christ’s own forever.” But maybe the way that works out in our daily lives is a bit unclear – at least some of the time. How do you live as one who is baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection? What does it mean to say you have died and been born again? Easy and pat answers won’t go very far here. It really just takes our daily experience. It’s not something we can describe so much as it is something we live and pray.
This September we are one of a handful of congregations in the Episcopal Church to receive a special grant from the Lilly Grant folks that will allow us to explore what it really means for us to be Baptized for Life as individuals and as a congregation and as part of Wabingston (the three parishes of Ware, Abingdon, and Kingston). Beginning September 16, we will take part in filling out a questionnaire about our spiritual lives. I ask that each of you take the 20 minutes or so to fill out the online questions. (There will be hard copy and a way to do this online at the parish house for those who don’t usually do computers at home.) It will be important to hear from everyone – our oldest members and our youngest, those who attend three times a year and those who are here like they hold the walls up. If you come to Kingston at all, please fill one out! This is not a questionnaire to see if you like the way we do things. It is a questionnaire that seeks to explore with us what it means to be baptized for life. Needless to say, you need not fear that you are going to write the “wrong” answers because the questions will be too big for there to be wrong answers.
The information we receive from these questionnaires (anonymously, by the way) will be used by us, with the help of folks from Renewal Works at Forward Movement (the people who give us our Forward Day by Day prayer booklets) and a few people at Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria. With the answers, we will seek to understand who we are as baptized people. What are our strengths in God? What are our weaknesses? What might we be called to do in the years ahead as we live into our baptisms? A wonderful group of folks from the breadth of our congregation has volunteered to help with the work of sharing with us the results of the questionnaire and working with us to make sense of what to do next – more on that in October! Then we will spend about three years, working with Wabingston and on our own, to find ways to live into our baptism with special intention.
This is a huge gift to our congregation and a beautiful opportunity for us to give to God as we seek out a deeper experience of our baptisms using this program. It will also be, especially for us as a part of Wabingston, a gift to the larger church as we show the church ways we (three smaller congregations) work together to build up the Body of Christ.
This will be a special journey deeper into Christ for us as the people of God at Kingston Parish. I feel very blessed to be with you all on this journey. In the days ahead, let’s all take the first step and see where God is leading!
For the next six weeks we will live in the church season of Epiphany, although I think we are always really in the season of Epiphany. An epiphany is an “aha!” – it’s making sense of something, seeing something truthful for the first time. This season after Christmas focuses on the “aha” stories of Jesus being shown to be King of Kings and Messiah in the arrival of Persian stargazers with gifts for a poor Jewish newborn, the Baptism of Jesus when the voice of God echoes: “listen to him!”, the wedding at Cana where Jesus changes water into wine, and others. The season always ends with the epiphany on Mount Tabor when Jesus is transfigured before Peter, John and James and show to be the heir of the Torah (Moses) and the Prophets (Elijah).
These are special moments of revelation about who Jesus is. But the truth is the whole season of Epiphany points to a world full of epiphanies that reveal God as God and Jesus as savior of all.
God is always present in all that is. Epiphany reveals that presence in everyday life for us all. In a world where we each and all too often imagine God is absent, how can we bring eyes to see for ourselves and others so that God’s omnipresence is known in our every moment?
In a world where what we see so often is darkness, fear, and hate, we need this season of Thanksgiving. We seem so ready to name what is wrong, to put someone down, to be afraid of the stranger, to demonize the person with whom we disagree; perhaps the tonic for it all is to remember God’s abundant gifts and be grateful. There is so much good in our lives and in God’s world.
We begin November remembering saints – the big saints like Francis and John, Mary and Teresa – and the little saints like Grandma and the person who often sits beside us in church. What a blessing it is to have the saints at the foundations of our faith and our church who show us how to love God and love neighbor in the real world and in times of great challenge and change. What a blessing it is to have the saints of today at our sides showing us often how to love God and neighbor in the simple and everyday. Give thanks for the saints and the gift of God that allows us each and all to be saints too.
Later in November we shall celebrate Thanksgiving which reminds us of the gifts of harvest, the gifts of friends and family around table, the gift of our country, and the gifts of all that is. Again, when we live out of that gratefulness, life gets better. It doesn’t just look better, it gets better.
How are you thankful? How do you show thanks to others? (“Thank you” is great, of course, but how can you go further?) How do you offer thanks even to yourself? (For many of us thinking of and lifting up our own good ways of caring for ourselves is too easily overlooked or deemed selfish, but at its best this is what allows us to function for others.) How do you give thanks to God? (Remember Eucharist, for instance, means thanksgiving!) How can we spread our gratefulness to the world?
Stewardship. It’s a word we toss around often in the Fall and especially in relation to the funding of the ministries of the parish church and our diocese. It gets tangled with the words pledge and tithe rather quickly. And those are important, but stewardship is much bigger than that. Stewardship is how we understand and take care of all that is and especially all that we have been given by God (which, in Christian understanding, is everything we have, of course). Stewardship is involved when we decide to forego that extra cookie to take care of our bodies -- or believe we should enjoy that cookie as care for our spirit. Stewardship is recycling in our parish kitchen in order to honor God’s creation on the beautiful Chesapeake Bay. And stewardship is offering our time and money to those in need after all the hurricanes and earthquakes of late, caring for others and for our relationship with others.
We, the Christian people of Kingston Episcopal Parish are stewards of an Anglican tradition and a Christian faith, and most especially God’s Good News, the Gospel. We are stewards of each other, of Mathews County, and of the Gospel throughout the world. We are stewards not only of the tradition that links us to Bishops and dioceses in Virginia and around the world, we are also stewards of a particular history here in Mathews and at Kingston Parish. We have a special connection, for example with Sally Tomkins and Giles B. Cooke. Their stories are, like all of our stories, shades of grey and glory. While I am conscious they worked in some way to continue the ways of slavery (which is surely against the Gospel of Jesus Christ in who there is neither north nor south, slave or free), yet there is much holy and good in their stories to share and celebrate in our stewardship of their memories here at Kingston. Captain Sally’s smart and faithful use of cleanliness for healing is a powerful witness especially in a time when surgeons regularly used the same dirty knife going from one patient to the next. And Cooke, a secretary to Robert E. Lee, went on to become an Episcopal priest, founder of numerous educational and religious institutions for Black Americans during the Reconstruction in his home of Petersburg before he served as parish priest here in Mathews. In fact, the library where I worked and studied as a seminary student is named for the Bishop Paine Seminary. Bishop Alexander Paine was a Black bishop who Cooke honored when he named a seminary to train Black clergy he helped create. Eventually Cooke’s seminary was united with the Virginia Seminary where I studied for holy orders. The Rev. Cooke and his wife are both remembered in the very walls of Christ Church for their faithfulness and good stewardship of what God had given them.
Being stewards of all that God has given us is a great responsibility and never easy to discern in rigid, easy terms. There is much for us to learn and know about all that God has given us so that we can be good stewards. And just as the cookie can be something to forego as a good steward or something to enjoy as a good steward, so we have always to make careful and faithful decisions about how to honor the Gospel with our actions and stewardship. May we each and all always be good stewards of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and be remembered in ages to come, not for ourselves, but for the ways we brought the Kingdom of God faithfully into the world.
The Very Rev. Gary Barker