Archives for June 2010

Keep your hand on the plow, Pentecost 5, Proper 8 (C) – 2010

[RCL] 1 Kings 19: 15-16, 19-21; Psalm 77:1-2, 11-20; Galatians 5:1, 13-25; Luke 9: 51-62

Listen to the way Eugene Peterson translates Psalm 77 in The Message:

“I yell out to my God, I yell with all my might, I yell at the top of my lungs. He listens.
I found myself in trouble and went looking for my Lord;
my life was an open wound that wouldn’t heal.
When friends said, ‘Everything will turn out all right,’
I didn’t believe a word they said.
I remember God – and shake my head.
I bow my head – then wring my hands.
I’m awake all night – not a wink of sleep;
I can’t even say what’s bothering me.
I go over the days one by one,
I ponder the years gone by.
I strum my lute all through the night,
wondering how to get my life together.
Will the Lord walk off and leave us for good?
Will he never smile again?
Is his love worn threadbare?
Has his salvation promise burned out?
Has God forgotten his manners?
Has he angrily stalked off and left us?
‘Just my luck,’ I said. ‘The High God goes out of business
just the moment I need him.’”

How many times have we felt like the poet? How many times have we felt bereft, abandoned, hopeless? How many times do we face the dark sleepless night of despair?

It has been said that the poetry of the psalms is the language of God. This is language God understands. They represent the collective history of our people talking to God. And in most cases, as in Psalm 77, they convey our deepest feelings as we try to get God’s attention.

The poet describes our feelings when we are feeling under attack, when we are feeling rejected, when we need some reassurance that someone out there cares – and that “someone” had better be God, the Lord, the Almighty, the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jesus.

Elijah knows these feelings well. The entire nation had abandoned God for a competing deity, Baal, the god of King Ahab’s wife, Jezebel. Even after soundly defeating the prophets of Baal with the remarkable kindling of wood soaked in water, there was still a price on Elijah’s head. He was a hunted man. So after sitting under a broom tree and sulking, God instructed Elijah to commission Elisha to finish the business he had begun. The only strategy Elijah and Elisha seem to know how to employ amongst the great apostasy in the land is almighty, powerful, fire-breathing lightening and flames from heaven. And Elisha orders up a double of whatever powers Elijah can muster. And as we know, Elisha strikes back at any and all opponents, even summoning a couple of she bears to gobble up forty-two of the little boys who taunt him about his bald head!

So we can somewhat understand, with this in the background, the disciples wanting to rain fire from heaven on the Samaritans who want nothing to do with Jesus because he wants to worship on Zion in Jerusalem and they worship on a different mountain. And when we are honest with ourselves, we would all like to take care of annoying, recalcitrant, threatening people this way. Why not?

Well, as it turns out, “Why not?” turns out to be Jesus, who says, “No, we don’t do that kind of thing. No time for that. Keep your eyes on the prize. Set your faces toward Jerusalem. Keep your hand on that plow; hold on. Hold on, hold on, Keep your hand on that plow; hold on.”

There are several important things in this. Luke is asserting, once and for all, that Jesus is not Elijah. Before, Matthew, Mark, and Luke had all believed that Jesus was Elijah. But when Elisha took his hands off the plow and asked to have a farewell party with his family before following Elijah, Elijah said, “Sure, go ahead.” Not so with Jesus. No time to bury your dead father. No time to say good-bye. No time to turn back to the way things used to be. Set your face toward Jerusalem, keep your hand on that plow, and hold on.

Secondly, the later prophet Malachi had said, “I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of parents to their children, and children to their parents.” Whereas we hear Jesus talking of turning fathers against sons, husbands against in-laws, and all the rest. We hear Jesus saying there is no time for traditional family matters. The urgency of proclaiming the kingdom of God calls for a radical break with tradition and familiar institutions. Set your faces toward Jerusalem, and keep your hand on that plow, and hold on. Hold on, hold on, Keep your hand on that plow; hold on.

Jesus is carving out new territory and new strategies for dealing with rejection: keep focused on Jerusalem, keep focused on the good news of the kingdom of God, plow a furrow straight into the heart and mind and love of God, where there is no place for silly displays of power and destruction of one’s enemies – no room for ancient quarrels.

Jesus seems to be saying:

“Remember who I am. I am not Elijah. God raised up Elijah to get your attention refocused on the one God who matters, the one God who cares, the one God who, at the end of the day, will lead you, just as God led you out of slavery into freedom in the hands of Moses and Aaron. Now God has sent me, has actually come down as me, to dwell amongst all ya’ll and help you to see that it is useless and meaningless to dispute which mountain you will use for worship.

“What is at stake here is serving God and serving your neighbor. And guess what; those stubborn Samaritans, like it or not, are your neighbors. Later I will tell you a story in which you will learn that on some days the only person who seems to understand what I am really saying, doing, and urging you to do, will be one of those Samaritans you want to reduce to heavenly barbeque! There are good Samaritans everywhere. You cannot judge a book by its cover. How many times must I tell you that?”

Now Jesus could just as well have started in as Psalm 77 does. Facing rejection among the Samaritans he could, like Elijah, sit under a broom tree and complain:

“Will the Lord walk off and leave us for good?
Will he never smile again?
Is his love worn threadbare?
Has his salvation promise burned out?
Has God forgotten his manners?
Has he angrily stalked off and left us?
‘Just my luck,’ I said. ‘The High God goes out of business
just the moment I need him.’”

But Jesus knows what Paul Harvey called “the rest of the story.” The poet in Psalm 77 sits down feeling utterly abandoned and begins to remember. As Eugene Peterson translates in The Message: “Once again I’ll go over what God has done, lay out on the table the ancient wonders; I’ll ponder all the things you’ve accomplished, and give a long, loving look at your acts.”

When we set our faces toward Jerusalem, that place, that singular place on earth, where God makes God’s name to dwell on top of the holy hill of Mount Zion; when we hold on to the plow without looking back at all the distractions, all the rejection, all the hurt, all the brokenness; we see, we remember the things God has done. We remember God’s care for God’s people. We stand in awe of the mighty things the Almighty has done all the way back to the beginning, the “In the beginning,” taming and ordering the chaotic waters of creation.

Jesus knows that fixing our hearts and minds on this God of the Bible will lead us away from senseless controversies, away from any feeling of abandonment, and reset our faces toward Jerusalem. This God will once again give us the strength to put our hand to that plow and hold on. It’s the gospel plow taking us straight to the heart of God and God’s love.

Hold on, because God has new, awesome, and amazing things for us to do and to experience. Some of it we may not like. Hold on with Jesus and you will be sure to face rejection of all sorts.

But when we “strum our lutes all through the night pondering how to get our lives together,” Jesus acknowledges that it will be in the singing of poetry such as the psalms that our God will not only hear us, but will hold us in his hands. It’s like singing the blues, like singing those old-time gospel blues:

Keep on plowing, don’t you tire,
Every round goes higher an’ higher,
That gospel line gets mighty hot,
Just hang on with all you got,
You can talk on me as much as you please,
For your talkin’ ain’t gonna stay on me
I heard the voice of Jesus say,
Come on to me, I am the Way
Keep your hand on that plow, hold on
Hold on, hold on,
Keep your hand on that plow, hold on

When we keep our hands on that gospel plow, when we sing these psalms of old, when we take time to remember what God has done, we find ourselves staying away from stupid, senseless controversies. Then and only then can God’s healing Spirit begin to pour into our hearts to heal our brokenness and bring us back from the dark sleepless nights of our despair.

Keep your hand on that plow, hold on!

The Rev. Kirk Alan Kubicek is rector of St. Peter’s Church in Ellicott City, Maryland, a parish in the Anglo-Catholic tradition. He also travels throughout the church leading stewardship events for parishes, dioceses, clergy conferences, and diocesan conventions. He has long been involved in the work of The Episcopal Network for Stewardship (TENS), and the Ministry of Money. He frequently uses music and storytelling in his proclamation of the Word.

Love stronger than anything, Pentecost 4, Proper 7 (C) – 2010

[RCL] 1 Kings 19:1-4, (5-7), 8-15a and Psalm 42 and 43 (Track 2: Isaiah 65:1-9 and Psalm 22:18-27); Galatians 3:23-29; Luke 8:26-39

[NOTE TO READER: Gerasene demoniac is pronounced “JER-uh-seen  de-MON-ee-ak”]
Let’s look for a minute at the story of the Gerasene demoniac; it’s about time somebody did. The story doesn’t get a lot of attention in preaching these days, and that’s a shame. There’s some really good stuff here, and it’s pretty funny if you come at it from the right angle. Also, it’s very handy to have it coupled with Paul’s words in Galatians. The two readings help each other.

First of all, let’s look at the issue that seems to get in the way of engaging it the most these last few centuries – those poor doomed demons. The fact is, the New Testament world had a different way of seeing reality than we do, or than the 10th century did, or than the 17th century did. And I’m confident that in just a handful of decades there will be a still different way of seeing the world – different categories, different ways of naming and organizing the stuff we experience. And so on. That changing never changes.

These days, we don’t do demons, at least not much. We don’t have a category for that. But it’s not a big deal; and it’s sure not worth all the effort folks put into trying to force this square peg into the round hole of our current categories. Instead of that, let’s see what’s going on here; and let’s see where the gospel is.

On one really important level, the story is a hoot – it’s somewhere between a political cartoon and a graphic novel. The whole scene is bizarre. You’ve got a naked crazy guy, chatty demons, charging pigs doing swan dives, tombs, chains, shackles, freaked-out locals, and a small riot. All in gentile territory where, as far Luke was concerned, Jesus had no business being in the first place.

The folks who first heard this story must have loved it. In addition to the great action and dialogue, there was ancient regional rivalry.

What could be more fun for the good Jews of Galilee to hear than a story about how un-kosher, unlucky, and generally weird the gentiles on the other side of the lake really were; and about how all those unclean pigs came to a well-deserved and hilarious end.

Then there’s the political subtext. Everybody knew instantly both that it was no accident that the demons called themselves “Legion” after the famous and feared Roman legions, or that pigs were a staple of both the Roman army and the Roman economy. Caesar’s legions, and Caesar’s rations, were mere child’s play for Jesus – a quick flush and they’re gone. What fun. And most Romans who heard the story probably wouldn’t even get this part.

But as delightful as all this is, this is much more than a mildly comic interlude in Jesus’ Galilean ministry. It’s really good news, and it’s good news about power – all sorts of power. The Gerasene demoniac appears just after the more familiar account of Jesus calming the storm on the lake. In fact, the storm was on the very same trip that took Jesus and the disciples to Gerasene. Both of these accounts are part of Luke’s run-up to the big question Jesus asks his disciples in the next chapter: “Who do you say that I am?” In fact, all of these stories are hints about what the right answer is; so they all are not so much stories about what Jesus did, but about who he is.

And who Jesus is has to do with power. It has to do with which, of all the powers in the universe, regardless of what categories we use to talk about them, are the strongest, which powers will have the last word.

You see, there are a lot of powers out there, powers that can, and do, hurt and isolate and torment and destroy – in all sorts of ways. The categories we use to describe them don’t really matter that much. Whether we live in a world full of demons or schizophrenics, of storm-gods or indifferent natural laws, of illness or of possession – regardless of the categories we use, we live in a dangerous world, a frightening world, a world that seems at both first and second glance to be pretty much against us. We live in a world that doesn’t seem to care about us or our pain. We know this all too well.

And the story of the Gerasene demoniac, like the story of the calming of the sea, like so many of the other stories about what Jesus did, and about who Jesus is, these are ways of saying that all of those powers out there, regardless of how we name them or organize them, regardless of how real they are, and regardless of how awful they are – none of them is ultimately powerful, none of them has or will have the last word, none of them will prevail, ultimately. In the end, when all is said and done, we are safe. And the power that Jesus brings, the power of love, the power we see most clearly on the cross, that power will prevail. And this victory is ours by gift.

At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter what is lined up against us. Look, the Gerasene demoniac had more to worry about than his demons. He was also a pariah, cut off from family, friends, community, relationships – from all those connections that together weave the fabric of our humanity. That isolation, that apart-ness, was also the victory of powers, perhaps powers we humans create, powers that can destroy as effectively, and as completely, as madness or storms.

Still, by the time Jesus got through with him, our demoniac was on the other side of those as well. He was not only in his right mind, but he was, as they say, dressed appropriately; and Jesus told him to go to his home, a home he didn’t have when our story began. He was given the fullness of his life back. Remember, there are all sorts of powers out there; and all sorts of victories.

This is part of what Paul is talking about when he insists that, in Christ, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female.” Paul is saying that these distinctions, and others, these powers of the social, economic, ecclesiastical, and political structures – as ancient, hallowed, destructive, and potent as they were, and as they are – these are powers that will fall, and that have fallen, before Jesus. Their voices are not the strongest voices, and they will not have the last word. It is our vocation to oppose them, and by God’s grace they should not, and ultimately they cannot, separate, isolate, define, or destroy us.

Because the love that Jesus is, and the love that Jesus brings, is stronger than anything, even the worst, the very worst, that the world can throw at us. That’s who Jesus is – that’s what these stories are all about, that’s the metanarrative or “big story,” regardless of the categories and the worldviews we use to talk about them.

And that is good news.

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Written by the Rev. James Liggett
The Rev. James Liggett is Rector of St. Nicholas’ Episcopal Church in Midland, Texas. He is a native of Kansas and a graduate of the University of Houston and the Episcopal Divinity School. He has served parishes in Kansas, Texas, and Oklahoma.

Jesus knows us, Pentecost 3, Proper 6 (C) – 2010

[RCL] 1 Kings 21:1-10, (11-14), 15-21a and Psalm 5:1-8 (Track 2: 2 Samuel 11:26-12:10, 13-15 and Psalm 32); Galatians 2:15-21; Luke 7:36-8:3

Today’s story from Luke could easily be a contemporary one-act play – a single scene where characters, conflict, and social norms clash together to reveal an unexpected and utterly transformative truth. The set: a well-decorated dining room, simple but expensive looking. The characters: Simon the Pharisee, a curious intellectual with an eye for the interesting; Jesus of Nazareth, the guest of honor and eventual game changer; and the Woman with the Alabaster Jar, a character with no name who is the source of the scene’s most uncomfortable moments.

Like any good drama, this story begins with the mundane. A Pharisee asks Jesus over for dinner, Jesus accepts, and the two sit down for a meal. So often in the gospels the Pharisees are cast as the villains. Unable to accept Jesus’ teaching, confused by his deliberate opposition to certain devout customs, this group of religious leaders is often understood as an organized faction out to get Jesus. But here, we see a different side of the Pharisees. Simon is obviously open minded enough to invite the renegade rabbi over to his house for dinner. As we find out later, he is not quite excited enough about the event to make a big show of it – to ask a servant to wash Jesus’ feet, for example – but he is willing to hear what the increasingly popular teacher has to say. There is no evidence to indicate that the dinner invitation is a plot or a trick. It’s simply a dinner, and Simon has at least an intellectual interest in this man named Jesus.

Enter the Woman with the Alabaster Jar. Luke does not give her a name, nor does he give her any lines. We know very little about her aside from the fierce gossip spoken behind her back – “Sinner!” – yet she provides the action that drives the rest of the story. We don’t know how she entered the house, how many people she defiantly walked past before finding Jesus as the table. She stands behind him, then crouches on the ground. She begins to cry, allowing her tears to collect at his feet, bathing them, washing away the day’s dust. Without a towel or even a scarf – maybe she didn’t think this through – she unties her hair and dries his feet, wet with her own tears. Finally, she takes expensive oil and anoints him again and again, kissing him as she does it.

Imagine the room. Imagine Simon, whose carefully casual dinner just became shockingly uncomfortable. Simon’s reaction – or the emotional response that we might picture him having – is not difficult to understand. If he is shocked, there is a good chance that we are too. Even contemporary readers thousands of years removed from the first telling of this story, readers thoroughly on board with Jesus and his message, may find this part of the scene more than a little awkward. A woman overcome with emotion for reasons that we do not know, her tears washing a man’s feet, her hair drying them, her kisses, the oil … it all seems a little voyeuristic on our end, as if we are spying on an a moment so raw, so vulnerable, that it was never meant to be seen at all.

Only Jesus remains unflappable. Only he – the God in him, the man in him – is able to understand this woman’s extravagant gesture, her otherwise inappropriate actions, as a full-body attempt at reconciliation, a plea for forgiveness. If she is a sinner like the rest of us, only Jesus knows her sin.

If this story was a one-act play, it might be titled “Forgiveness.” Here, we get a sense of God’s love, of God’s composed and collected way of accepting our broken pleas, our vulnerable moments, and refusing to turn away from them. While we may find it difficult to forgive, we see that forgiveness is natural to God. While we may find ourselves cringing away from the brokenness of others, we see that God never blinks. For Simon, and maybe for us, this introduction to a God so full of love and so ready to reconcile with us can be almost too much to bear.

In today’s reading from Galatians, we find Paul taking a stab at using theological language to describe the type of forgiveness that Jesus displays at Simon’s house. While the Woman with the Alabaster Jar ignites the right side of our brains, Paul goes to work on the left. “We know that a person is justified not by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ,” he writes. “But if in our effort to be justified in Christ, we ourselves have been found to be sinners, is Christ then a servant of sin? Certainly not!”

“Justified,” “faith,” “works,” “law,” “sin”: Paul throws around heavy religious words that can be hard get a handle on. The underlying theme of this and many of Paul’s points is that through the person of Jesus – his whole life, his death, his resurrection and ascension – we, as individuals and as a gathered community, find unity with God. It is through faith in Jesus that all of our sins are forgiven. Even that sin, whether it be one or many, that we cannot even name, that causes us to weep as we crouch at Christ’s feet.

Back in Simon’s dining room, Jesus is about to show his true colors, revealing that he doesn’t care too much for fancy dinner parties or the invitations of respected hosts. While Jesus may have been a bit of a curiosity to Simon, the Pharisee’s status was of little interest to his guest. When Simon questions Jesus’ status as a prophet, claiming that if he really was what he said he was, he would know that this woman with her tears and her kisses was a sinner, Jesus calmly responds. I imagine him meeting Simon’s gaze across the table, setting down his glass, staring for a while. In case we were wondering who is in charge here, we are about to find out. “Simon, I have something to say to you,” Jesus begins, and then he tells a story.

The parable is a simple one. A creditor has two debtors, one who owes a lot of money and one who owes less. Neither of them could pay, so the creditor cancels both debts. In the end, the one with the greater debt loved the creditor more, Jesus and Simon agree. “The one to whom little is forgiven loves little,” Jesus says. Then he turns to the woman and tells her that she is forgiven. Her sins, known to him alone, have been wiped away like the dust on his feet, and she is free to go and live a new life in the assurance of God’s grace.

This final exchange is the resolution of the one-act play and it is the perfect image to go along with Paul’s words about sin and justification. The audience knows that something important has happened, for the Woman with the Alabaster Jar, for us. Like any good play, when the lights go down, the attention shifts from the stage to the silent working of the audience’s hearts and minds, where the lessons learned struggle to take root and grow.

Like Simon, we all might have an intellectual interest in Jesus, an interest that extends about as far as a carefully casual dinner party with Christ as the guest of honor. But we have our “alabaster jar” side, too – that part of us that yearns for reconciliation and forgiveness, that wells up with emotion when we think of the pain and the wrong that we cannot name. Here we learn that Jesus knows us better than anyone else, that he accepts our offerings no matter how awkward, how ugly, and forgives.

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Written by the Rev. Elizabeth Easton
The Rev. Elizabeth Easton is the associate rector of All Saints Episcopal Church in Omaha, Nebraska. A native of Washington State, she graduated from Church Divinity School of the Pacific in 2009.

Transformative lives, Pentecost 2, Proper 5 (C) – 2010

[RCL] 1 Kings 17:8-16 (17-24) and Psalm 146 (Track 2: 1 Kings 17:17-24 and Psalm 30); Galatians 1:11-24; Luke 7:11-17

One of the most remarkable features of the First Book of Kings is the collection of stories featuring the prophet Elijah. The first of these comes after the rather generalized anecdotes about the royal house of kings following the death of Solomon. Without exception these monarchs “did what was displeasing to the Lord,” and then suddenly the narration changes subject. In Chapter 16, which precedes our reading for today, King Ahab is introduced and then suddenly Chapter 17 begins with Elijah the Tishbite, “inhabitant of Gilead” confronting Ahab with the observation that the God of Israel has said there is about to be a drought that no amount of royal power can prevent or stop. Rain will come only when the God of Israel says so.

The picture of Elijah being both confrontational and cryptic with King Ahab is actually emblematic of the whole collection of prophetic literature. Prophets are the ones God calls to speak God’s truth to power – to speak and to live as example and warning of God’s alternate reality while the powers that be in monarchical or temple leadership pursue other goals, and achieve their ends by ungodly means.

Prophets function in Biblical texts as the vehicles of God’s word: when they speak God’s judgment on those who perpetrate injustice, they are announcing God’s own critique of social, political, and economic injustices that bring about death, despair, and hopelessness. When they offer alternate pictures of life as God intends it, prophets bring hope to the hopeless, life to those shadowed by death and disaster. In short, prophets bring God’s good news into bad times.

Elijah in today’s reading offers us just such a picture of hope in contrast to the world Ahab and his predecessors have made. In the midst of the drought affecting King Ahab’s world and people, God interrupts Elijah’s life and sends him outside Ahab’s jurisdiction.

First Elijah is sent to the Transjordan, where he is protected and sustained by ravens, but as the drought spreads, he is sent northward up the coast to Zarephath in Sidon. Here, as God said, he finds a certain widow who will feed him. The word of God calls the prophet to go way beyond all the normal support systems of his life. As death, in the form of the drought, spreads, Elijah stays on the move until he comes to the widow. She is, by definition, lacking all the life-giving resources of ordinary patriarchal societies in the ancient world. It is noteworthy also that God sends Elijah without any resources himself: he brings neither bread nor oil to the widow, nor does he bring well water. He has nothing to give away, it seems.

Yet the whole point of the Elijah stories is, precisely, that having nothing at all in the worldview of King Ahab, Queen Jezebel, and all the priests of the pagan gods who are turning the lives of God’s people into a desert, the prophet brings unimagined and unimaginable hope into the parched lands because he brings the life-giving word of God.

Through Elijah’s faithful obedience, God’s life-giving word assures the daily bread for the widow. And more than that; when the widow’s son dies, and her hope for any sort of normal, ordinary future dies with him, the life-giving word of God renews the boy’s life, and therefore hers too. There is holy power at work in Elijah, as in all the prophets, the power of God’s life-giving word to break through the death-dealing ways of nature and culture alike.

Before moving to Jesus, we must pause to meditate. You and I have been assured of holy power at work in our own lives: the power of the Holy Spirit allows us to live transformed and transformative lives. Hold that thought.

Now we can move into the gospel and watch Jesus, the living word of God, who is bringing life into another socioeconomic situation like that in the First Book of Kings. Here is Jesus with a widow whose only son is dead.

Our reading from the Gospel of Luke says: “When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her and said to her, ‘Do not weep.’”

While Luke has undoubtedly structured the scene based on the story of Elijah, there is a significant difference: Jesus’ compassion. To have compassion, and to be moved by compassion, is to take the suffering of other persons into oneself. Elijah the prophet was so identified with the God of the life-bearing word that his own actions brought life in the midst of death. Luke’s Jesus embraces the suffering of people at the edge of the social fabric, on the margins of the power structures, and thus he identifies with the hopelessness of the widow. With Elijah and Jesus alike, however, the hope that blazes forth from the Biblical texts is God’s life-bringing and life-bearing presence, which transforms death-dealing situations into visions and experiences of life as God intends.

Life on the margins is brutal, nasty, and often much shorter than “three score years and ten.” The best-contrived social safety nets develop holes, and it does not take the eruptions of nature or the recessions of the human economy before people fall through them. These pictures of Elijah and Jesus can illuminate our own death-dealing times, and prod us to live as Pentecost people called to embrace and bear life as God intends it. We have been empowered by the Spirit to live transformative lives, bearing compassion in deed as well as word, carrying the life of Christ, moved by the power of the Spirit amid the ways of our world – at work, at play, as daughters or widows, soldiers or secretaries, as citizens who care enough to vote.

Christmas and Easter are behind us now, but as the angels said at the nativity and at the empty tomb: “Do not be afraid.”

Let us go forth into the world rejoicing in the power of the Spirit.

Written by the Rev. Angela V. Askew
The Reverend Angela V. Askew is priest-in-charge of St. Ann and the Holy Trinity Church in Brooklyn, New York.