Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Mother Valori's October article for The Shelby Star: Living Resurrection Life

I love the story of doubting Thomas found in the Gospel of John (20:21-31) because it goes straight to something most of us fear - our doubt. Yet we all experience doubt somewhere along the way on our Christian journey. The story of doubting Thomas gives us permission to doubt and Jesus’ response to Thomas gives us comfort that our own doubt won’t cast us away from our Savior, but will lead us to living the resurrection life he died to give us. Jesus doesn’t make Thomas feel bad for doubting. He allows Thomas to put his fingers in the crucifixion wounds, and he does so graciously.

Maybe Jesus responded tenderly to Thomas and the other disciples who doubted because they had important work to get to - Jesus was preparing to send the disciples out to continue his work of bringing in the kingdom of God. When Jesus breathed the Holy Spirit onto the disciples, he said: “If you forgive someone’s sins, they are forgiven; if you retain their sins, they are retained.”

Forgiveness interrupts the cycle of sin, and when the cycle of sin is interrupted the grace of God can heal and restore wholeness. Forgiveness is something God gives us first. God doesn’t wait until we deserve forgiveness (thank God!). God just forgives us. But, Jesus said, if you don’t forgive someone’s sins, then the cycle of sin is not interrupted, and the harm from the sin will continue to affect the generations that follow. We retain sin by withholding forgiveness, holding onto our righteous indignation. We retain sin when we reject forgiveness which is offered to us because we are afraid or too proud to own up to our sin. Whenever we retain sin we lose the opportunity to bring God’s healing and wholeness to the brokenness in our world.

We are called to live our lives as believers in the power of Jesus’ resurrection. If we believe, then we participate with Jesus, bringing his radical forgiveness into our world - our families, our communities, and beyond - so that the healing power of God can interrupt the cycle of harm caused by sin.

This kind of forgiveness is almost as hard to comprehend as the resurrection itself. But, just as Jesus was gracious with Thomas who doubted, Jesus will be gracious with us as we try to get this forgiveness thing right. Jesus knows how hard this is… He came to live as one of us and he forgave from the cross. Jesus also knows that we can’t do this on our own, that we can only do this by the power of his life-giving Spirit, so he gave it to us saying, “Do not doubt, but believe.” Believe and live in the power of the resurrection of Jesus! Believe…and forgive.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Pentecost 22-C: A humble confession

Lectionary: Joel 2:23-32; Psalm 65; 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18; Luke 18:9-14

Mechthild of Magdeburg was a medieval mystic known for her poems, songs, and writings on spiritual matters. She was a remarkable Christian whose wisdom continues to benefit those of us who learn from her. One of Mechthild’s poems speaks directly to Jesus’ parable in our Gospel story:

In pride I so easily lost Thee --
But now the more deeply I sink
The more sweetly I drink
Of Thee!

It’s a concept that is counter-intuitive. We don’t like to sink because it means letting go of our own efforts. It’s more natural for us to fight to live, to kick against the current and struggle to keep our heads above water. But Mechthild presents such a beautiful image of the truth of our lives as Christians – drowning, as in the waters of Baptism, means letting go of self and relying totally on God for our life, our breath, our very survival.

In today’s Gospel story, the Pharisee assumes that God will be pleased by his good behavior, so he reminds God that he fasts, prays and tithes, that he doesn’t steal, cheat on his wife, or exploit his own kind for profit. He’s not like that tax collector over there. (whom he assumes does all those things because most of them did).

But the prayer of the Pharisee reveals to us that he is not in right relationship with God. He is relying on himself, his own efforts, and it has led him astray. As Mechthild once said: “When I … cherish some sourness in my heart… my soul becomes so dark… that I must… humbly make confession… Then only does grace come again to my soul…” The Pharisee’s prayer shows that arrogance has darkened his soul and soured the purity of his heart.

The tax collector, on the other hand, knows that his life isn’t anything to brag about so he makes a humble confession instead, praying simply: God, be merciful to me a sinner. And this is the prayer that pleases God. This is the heart that presents itself purely and is therefore justified.

Rather than celebrating disparity, as the Pharisee did, the pure of heart will long for unity and work for reconciliation. The pure of heart will not stand alone in their temples reveling in their closeness to God, they will be out there among the sinners, the suffering, and the scorned, embodying God’s love and giving generously from their gifts so that all they meet will know that they are not alone, that they matter to someone, and that they are beloved of God.

But we don’t want to be too hard on the Pharisee. He was faithful and he was praying. And if we’re not careful, we might find ourselves silently giving thanks to God that we are not like the Pharisee… but we are. Everyone is …at least sometimes. Like the Pharisee, we often get distracted by our score-keeping - measuring our value by the good things we do, the success of our efforts - rather than keeping our hearts pure, trusting in God’s plan for us, not in our own ability to judge the present moment.

Notice also that Jesus doesn’t tell us in this parable whether or not the tax collector repented. That’s because that isn’t the point of the story. The point is that we are all sinners in need of mercy which God gives us generously.

It’s a lesson that is part of our history as people of God. In the continuing story from the prophet Joel, the people of Israel have broken the covenant so habitually that they don’t even know how to be in relationship with God anymore. And God’s response (through the prophet) is this: Rejoice O children of Zion, for God has vindicated you. God has delivered you from blame and from harm. Everything you need will be given to you – to overflowing, as only God can give, and you shall praise the name of the LORD your God who has dealt wondrously with you…You shall know that I am in [your] midst [God says], and that I, the LORD, am your God and there is no other. Then, when the Day of Judgment comes, everyone who calls on the name of the LORD shall be saved.

This is how generously God responds to us. How can we possibly cling to any fear? How can we resist offering a pure, trusting heart back to God?

Jesus showed us the path of the pure of heart – a path that led to the giving up of his life on the cross. We remember this each Sunday in our Eucharistic Prayer, when we ask God to unite us to [the] Son in his sacrifice that we may be acceptable through him. (BCP. 369). We are made acceptable through him… not by our right behavior, or even by right belief. We are made acceptable through Christ, the Savior and Redeemer of the world (BCP, 368) who humbly gave up his own life so that we might live eternally in him.

Jesus made clear that those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted. To be exalted is to be lifted up - as Jesus was on the cross. We are called to do with our lives as Jesus did with his. We are called to humble ourselves and give up control of our lives, trusting God with all we are, all we need, and all we should do.

That’s why each Sunday, as we gather for Holy Eucharist, we confess our sins against God and our neighbor. We intentionally remind ourselves that we sin – not just as individuals, but also as a community, as a people.

But we also remember in our Eucharist how God has dealt wondrously with us – bringing us out of error into truth, out of sin into righteousness, and out of death into life… We hear over and over again the amazing truth that we have been sanctified by the Holy Spirit of God. (BCP, 368, 369) To be sanctified is to be made pure, to be freed from the power of sin, and to be set apart for a holy purpose.

We have a holy purpose and it isn’t what we think – it isn’t anything that we do by our own efforts. Our holy purpose was described for us in the second letter to Timothy. Paul is dying. He has been deserted by his friends, whom he has forgiven, and he says: …the Lord stood by me and gave me strength, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all… might hear it.

The message – that’s our purpose – to be instruments God can use to proclaim the message, individually and corporately, so that all might hear it. Our actions, our decisions, and our words proclaim our message. So the question is: whose message are we proclaiming? If we are spending our time proclaiming any message but the Good News of salvation in Jesus Christ for the whole world, then we have strayed like the Pharisee did.

So, setting aside all of our pet priorities, that is, anything that separates us from one another or from God, let us surrender our hearts to God, sinking deeply together right now, in this Eucharist, into the waters of our Baptism. Let us let go of our plans, our fears, and our pride, and rely totally on God for our life, our breath, our very survival. Then will we have pure hearts to offer to God. Then will we be the ones through whom the Good News is faithfully proclaimed.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Pentecost 21-C: What we can do about domestic violence

Jeremiah 31:27-34; Psalm 119:97-104; 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5; Luke 18:1-8

Note: October is National Domestic Violence Awareness Month. The Abuse Prevention Council here in Shelby, which serves victims of domestic violence, asked me to write a sermon that could be shared with other clergy in our area to be preached on this date in the hopes of raising awareness and eliciting a compassionate response.

(A true story.) Early in my career as an advocate for victims of violence, my life and my approach to my work as a shelter director were transformed by a toddler… a little 4-year old girl named Lizzie. Lizzie suffered from fits of rage, something commonly seen in children who witness or suffer extreme violence at a very young age.

Lizzie’s rages usually lasted 10 to 20 minutes at a time and were triggered by sounds, smells or events that were connected to her memories of abuse. During these rages, Lizzie was unresponsive to reason. In fact, she would try to hurt anyone who tried to comfort her or stop her from hurting herself.

The doctors and therapists brought in to diagnose and treat Lizzie, told her mother and me that Lizzie needed to learn very clear boundaries around her behavior, and that we all had to be diligent and consistent, immediately interrupting Lizzie’s violent behavior and rewarding her good behavior. Lizzie will respond, they said, when the limitations on her behavior are clear to her.

Well, we tried. For weeks, every time Lizzie went into one of her rages, her mother, supported by our staff, worked hard to gently, but firmly interrupt the violence, using time outs, rewarding good behavior, putting Lizzie in what they called a “restraining position” so she couldn’t hurt herself or the one holding her. We did everything the therapists had suggested, but Lizzie wasn’t responding. In fact, her violence towards herself and others during her rages was increasing.

Lizzie’s mother and the shelter staff began to fear Lizzie and her rages.

One late afternoon, I was talking with Lizzie’s mom in the living room when another woman who was staying in the shelter returned home, carrying a large package. She asked one of the kids playing outside to help her close the door behind her. As sometimes happens, when the little boy closed the door, he slammed it shut.

Lizzie, who had been playing quietly on the floor in front of us, jumped up, ran behind the little toy kitchen in the corner of the room, and curled up on the floor in a fetal position. A rage began to overtake her, and her mother responded immediately, per the instructions given by the therapists.

But Lizzie would not be comforted. She hit and kicked at her mother, biting at her and screaming ugly things. When her mother tried to pick her up to put her into the restraining position, Lizzie wriggled out of her arms and began running at full speed into the furniture.

Her mother, totally overwhelmed, sat down on the floor, put her hands over her face, and began to cry.

I caught Lizzie in my arms as she ran across the room, sat down on the floor, and began to rock her in my lap. As Lizzie screamed and struggled to get free, I spoke softly to her, saying only that she was loved and that everything would be OK. I held her firmly, but not in the restraining position. She punched and swung at me, even bit me once on the arm, but I continued to softly speak words of love to her.

Eventually, Lizzie stopped struggling and rested in my arms, her breaths short and sharp from her recent tantrum. A minute later, Lizzie looked up at me, her eyes still puffy from crying and asked, “Am I a good girl?” “Yes, darling, Lizzie. You’re a good girl.” I assured her. A moment later, Lizzie was asleep. That was the last fit Lizzie ever threw.

By the grace of God, I realized in that frantic moment that what Lizzie needed wasn’t boundaries or limits or discipline. What she needed was tenderness and the assurance that she was loved.

Being only four years old, Lizzie lacked the words she needed to describe how the violence she had witnessed and suffered made her feel. She was too scared to tell anyone that she thought she must be bad and somehow to blame for the nightmare she lived. She was too little and too vulnerable to speak her greatest fear – that she wasn’t loved. So instead, she acted out. Like the woman in the parable of the unjust judge, Lizzie did what she could to get the justice she deserved.

Those who listened with earthly ears couldn’t hear Lizzie’s pleas – but God did – and just like Jesus promised in the parable, God acted swiftly to grant her justice.

God cares deeply about the powerless, the vulnerable, and the abused - and so should we.(Ref: Jn 3:16-17, Mt 25:40)

That’s why today, as we remember that October is Domestic Violence Awareness month, we open ourselves to hear the pleas of those in our midst who suffer. Last year, the Abuse Prevention Council here in Shelby, provided shelter to 107 women and 56 children. They advocated and filed for 818 orders of protection hoping to keep these women and their families safe from their abusers.

Even though most cases of domestic violence are never reported, the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence reports that:

• an estimated 1.3 million women are assaulted by their intimate partners each year.
• boys who witness domestic violence are twice as likely to abuse their own partners and children when they become adults.
• 30% to 60% of those who abuse their intimate partners also abuse children in the household.
• the cost of intimate partner violence exceeds $5.8 billion each year, $4.1 billion of which is for direct medical and mental health services … and yet…
• less than one-fifth of victims reporting an injury from intimate partner violence sought medical treatment following the injury.
(Taken from the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence Facts Sheet at

Imagine the cost if the other four-fifths of victims were reporting these assaults and seeking treatment for their injuries.

Statistics like these can cause us to lose heart. How can we ever make a dent in a problem of this magnitude? Well the simple answer is: we can’t, but God can.

What we can do is be the faithful ones the Son of Man desires to find on earth. We can be proclaimers of the Love that came to live among us, gave his life for us, and reconciled us to God. We can be the mouths that speak hope and the hands that offer safe, tender, healing comfort.

To be the kind of faithful instrument God can use, we must make ourselves ready – and we do that by being prayerful – which is the point of Jesus’ parable in Luke. Prayer is a discipline, a strength we build by practice. Prayer makes us ready, individually and corporately, to be evangelists, proclaimers of the Good News in favorable and unfavorable times.

Prayer enables us to be the light of Christ’s love in the darkest moments in the lives of our sisters and brothers who suffer. Prayer is that grace, that gift from God, that enables us to taste and share the reconciliation Christ achieved for us, and as the psalmist says – it is sweeter than honey to our mouths.

But unless our prayer brings us to do something real to manifest the love of God in our world, it is fruitless.

Here’s what we can do:

• we can inform ourselves about domestic violence. Our local Abuse Prevention Council (APC) can help, or go online to
• we can financially support the APC and their efforts to rebuild the broken lives of the women and children they serve
• we can volunteer our time, talents, and expertise to strengthen the services the APC can provide
• we can pray. Prayer is not the least we can do. It’s the most we can do.

Let’s close, then, with the sweet taste of this prayer
(called For the Oppressed):

Look with pity, O heavenly Father, upon the people in this land who live with injustice, terror, disease, and death as their constant companions. Have mercy upon us. Help us to eliminate our cruelty to these our neighbors. Strengthen those who spend their lives establishing equal protection of the law and equal opportunities for all. And grant that every one of us may enjoy a fair portion of the riches of this land; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
(The Book of Common Prayer, 826)

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Pentecost 19-C: Faithful waiting

Lectionary:Lamentations 1:1-6; Lamentations 3:19-26; 2 Timothy 1:1-14; Luke 17:5-10

Sometimes the most faithful thing we can do is nothing… nothing but wait and trust in God.

Back in my other life when I worked with battered and bruised people who had been betrayed by persons they loved, the hardest thing I had to teach them was to wait; to stop reacting to the problems they thought they saw; to take a step back and wait until a bigger picture was revealed or until the way through could be seen.

For Christians, this is faithful waiting and it isn’t a passive process – it isn’t just sitting back while God magically fixes everything that isn’t right. Faithful waiting is open, trusting, active, and expectant. Faithful waiting is also an important spiritual discipline for every mature or maturing Christian to practice.

Our Scriptures today walk us through this process of faithful waiting:


The story behind the book of Lamentations is this: in 587 Babylon destroyed Jerusalem and its temple and deported almost everyone - only the poorest and the weakest were left. The first five chapters of Lamentations are a response to this catastrophe. It has been said, “When we’re wounded physically, we cry out in pain, when we’re wounded spiritually, we lament.” These poems in Lamentations are honest prayers - open, unshielded, crying out to God, expecting to be heard and anticipating a response from God that puts things right.


In this response to the first reading, we see the shift from despair to hope. When our souls are bowed down, when we are weighed down by our troubles, the grace of God fills us and we remember what we already know about God: that the “steadfast love of the LORD never ceases” and God’s “mercies never come to an end,” that God is faithful and always acts to redeem... always.


Paul reminds us through his letter to Timothy, to seek renewal of our faith; to rekindle the gift of God that is within you, through the laying on of hands. In other words, get up and go get what you need. God is waiting to provide it. Power and love and self-discipline are given to us as gifts, but we must open ourselves to receive them.

Please turn in your Prayer Books with me to page 461 – the section of our Prayer Book called “Ministration to the Sick.” There, on the top of the page is a prayer for “Trust in God. “ Let’s read this prayer together:

“O God, the source of all health: So fill my heart with faith in your love, that with calm expectancy I may make room for your power to possess me, and gracefully accept your healing; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”

Submitting ourselves to anointing and laying on of hands (an ancient practice) brings us into the presence of the power of God in an unique and wonderful way; and it strengthens us to answer our holy calling… to fulfill God’s purpose for us and for the world.


Jesus tells the disciples, if you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could imagine the impossible. For instance, you could say to this tree (Note: the tree Jesus is describing typically has deep roots and thrives in dry areas - it doesn’t do well in wet areas) … you could say to this tree ‘be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and you could expect it to obey you.

For nothing is impossible with God.

And that is what Jesus is teaching in the Parable of the Mustard Seed. As with the other parables we’ve heard these last few weeks, this parable is about God. God designed the mustard weed to be prolific – it was kind of the kudzu of ancient Israel. It grew anywhere and everywhere the tiny seed landed creating a huge plant that overtook whatever else was there.

Birds would eat the seeds of the mustard weed and spread them in their droppings. The birds didn’t have to go to extraordinary lengths to spread the seeds of the mustard weed, they just lived their normal bird-lives, eating and being nourished by those seeds. And by the grace and design of God, the mustard weed was planted far and wide.

Like the mustard weed, God has designed the Good News, spread through our everyday living of it, to flourish anywhere and everywhere.

And this is our holy calling – to nourish ourselves with the holy food of Word and Sacrament… to live everyday faithfully waiting for the next step in our journey of faith to be revealed to us by our merciful God. We don’t have to do extraordinary things – God will. We can count on it. All we have to do is live our lives, remaining open to God, trusting in the faithfulness of God, actively seeking the presence of God, and expecting the best from God.

In a few minutes we will pray together, and lay hands on one another. As we do, we remember that God hears our prayers, and we can expect that God will answer our prayers.

Today when we notice that little voice in our head that says: “God has so much more to deal with than my little problem…” or “Those kinds of miraculous things don’t really happen anymore…” we remember that if we have faith the size of a mustard seed we will witness the amazing power and grace of God at work in us - and in the world through us.