Sunday, September 25, 2022

Year C Proper 21 2022 Unhardened Hearts

 Year C Proper 21, 25 September 2022

St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA

“Unhardened Hearts”


Collect: O God, you declare your almighty power chiefly in showing mercy and pity: Grant us the fullness of your grace, that we, running to obtain your promises, may become partakers of your heavenly treasure; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.


Luke 16:19-31

Jesus said, "There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man's table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. He called out, `Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.' But Abraham said, `Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.' He said, `Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father's house-- for I have five brothers-- that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.' Abraham replied, `They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.' He said, `No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.' He said to him, `If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.'"


It would be an easy sermon today if I were to stand up here and denounce the rich, and uphold poverty as an ideal. But, in my reading of it,  Jesus is not saying that. This story is profound and deep, and according to commentaries, this tale predates Jesus to which he added his own unique spin.


This story is not about rich versus the poor, though that is in there at a surface level.


This story is not about heaven and hell, even though the afterlife is the setting.


This story is really, deep down, about priorities, privilege, and a certain hardness of heart.


We are still in Chapter 16 of Luke from last week and we were in Chapter 15 in the weeks before. We are still looking at how the Pharisees are so close to Jesus’ teachings in some ways, but so far in others. Last week, we looked at what God treasures most, each and every one of us for those that missed it, and calls us to put first in our lives. We must look at the chapter as a whole and we get a fuller and more rich picture.


Chapter 16 of Luke begins with last week’s confusing parable about the Dishonest Manager. (vv. 1-13) But then we get into an argument with the Pharisees which our lectionary readings skip over.


I want to read a part of that and summarize the rest.


14 The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all this, and they ridiculed him. 15So he said to them, ‘You are those who justify yourselves in the sight of others; but God knows your hearts; for what is prized by human beings is an abomination in the sight of God.


The Pharisees understood earthly gain as an external proof of God’s blessings. We still hear it in phrases like, “I must be living right!” when something good happens. I hate to say it, but Prosperity Theology is still with us. This just simply is not how the universe works. God knows our hearts, and what we hold most dear. We cannot hide it. Is it stuff, or love of God and others? As mentioned, I talked about this last week about how it was intended to be love of each other, and our deepest, truest self. 


Verses 16 & 17 talk about how the prophets continue to ring true and cannot be dismissed. And Verse 18 upholds the sanctity of marriage and how divorcing one’s wife leads to adultery. These were other sins of the Pharisees, and then we dive into this tale of the Rich Man and Lazarus. Do not confuse this Lazarus with the one resurrected in John.


The name here is so important. There is a sense of irony maybe, from a cynical perspective, in its meaning. It comes from the Hebrew word, Elazer, which means “God has helped.” Pivotal in understanding both Luke’s Lazarus and John’s, “God has helped” does not receive help at first, and it leads to many questions. In John, Lazarus dies because of Jesus’ delay. Here Lazarus begs at a rich man’s gate with dogs licking his open sores. I will have to focus on Luke’s Lazarus because of time.


But in this story, notice a few things. The word used here in the story is Hades, which is a very different understanding than the word we use for hell. Hades was the gathering place for the dead. Some understandings were that death was it. Nothing more. When you are dead you are dead, and you may or may not be conscious.


Some other understandings were that this was the gathering place for the souls of the dead awaiting Judgment Day. There is no mention of that in Jesus’ parable. And remember that. This is a story to point out something to us. I do not hear Jesus saying that this is what the afterlife is like. I think it is a story, as I mentioned, about the hardness of heart.


Lazarus dies after a hard life. And when he dies, he is welcomed into the bosom of Abraham. Now once again, remember who Jesus is speaking to. His disciples, and the very upset Pharisees who thought that a righteous man, like they were, would never eat with tax collectors and sinners. But Jesus is showing one that would have been judged for his sins (Lazarus) as receiving the ultimate reward, nestled into Abraham’s bosom for eternity. Are you starting to see how controversial this story would have been to the listeners. Jesus is flipping tables in the hearers’ minds just like he did in the Temple.


And then we have the Rich Man. And before we get any further. I do not think that the lack of name here is accidental, any more than I think that the use of Lazarus (God-has-helped) is accidental. That Rich Man could have been so many of his listeners. Nameless they could unconsciously place themselves in this spot. The nameless Rich Man dies soon after Lazarus, and finds that his expected place of comfort in the world to come is anything but that. He is hot and thirsty. And to add insult to injury, the beggar he ignored on his own doorstep is in comfort, and here he is suffering. As a child of Abraham he begs Father Abraham to send Lazarus over with a drop of water on his finger. He has learned some humility in that while dogs licked Lazarus’ wounds in life, the unnamed Rich Man is willing to lick his finger in the afterlife. But Father Abraham recognizes this privilege for what it is, and breaks up the plea with a reminder of the chasm between the two of them.

Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.


But the privilege expected then went on to his family. In the final interchange we see some hard and deep truths. And it closes with a phrase that catches our attention knowing the “rest of the story.”


‘Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father's house-- for I have five brothers-- that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.' Abraham replied, `They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.' He said, `No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.' He said to him, `If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.'"


Your brothers had all they needed. Moses. The Prophets. They were warned. Now, I am hearing the 5 Books of Moses, the Torah, the first 5 books in the Bible, summed up in Moses. The Prophets, the Nevi’im, are included as well. They had all they needed to do right, and if they have not listened now they never will.


“Then send Lazarus to warn them! Surely if someone rises from the dead they will change their ways!”


And here is where our Christian ears perk up, for Father Abraham announces what may sound as judgment, but I hear it more as a declaration of human nature.

'If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.'


Lazarus coming back would not do it, and neither would anyone else’s resurrection, even the storyteller’s. Those hardened of heart would explain it away as fraud or “fake news.”


Friends, this is why I have to say that this parable is not about rich vs. poor, or about what comes after death. This is a story told to make a point. A point to the hearers then, and the hearers 2,000 years later. 


One of the most atrocious of sins we can commit is hardness of heart, not because one sin is greater than any other. I see hardness of heart as so devastating because there is nothing outside that can make a difference. We have to choose to become vulnerable, to unharden our deepest self, to love.


Friends, that is where we are today. We can talk about helping people. Some may do it for show. Some may do it out of kindness. Only God can look on the heart. But each and every one of us has a Lazarus on our metaphorical doorstep. They may seem like a pain or a bother, but maybe they are a gift from God to crack our hardened hearts. “We are put on earth a little space to learn to bear the beams of love.” But we learn to bear them not to hoard them, but to share them. 


Love is not a zero sum game, where there are winners and losers. When love reigns, it expands and grows. Being married taught me that. Being a parent just as much. Being a priest even more. We all are given all we need to do what God has called us, has GIFTED us rather, to do.


While it may be a story, the Rich Man and Lazarus still teaches us and humbles us. Let us not forget. And may our hearts break open and the love flow out while it can. We do not have eternity, we are only given Now to do what God would have us do. Amen


Tuesday, September 20, 2022

Year C Proper 20 WED 2022 Of Soundboards and Funhouse Mirrors

Year C Proper 20 WEDNESDAY, 21 September 2022 St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA “Of Soundboards and Funhouse Mirrors” Collect: Grant us, Lord, not to be anxious about earthly things, but to love things heavenly; and even now, while we are placed among things that are passing away, to hold fast to those that shall endure; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. Proverbs 3:1-6 My child, do not forget my teaching, but let your heart keep my commandments; for length of days and years of life and abundant welfare they will give you. Do not let loyalty and faithfulness forsake you; bind them round your neck, write them on the tablet of your heart. So you will find favour and good repute in the sight of God and of people. Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not rely on your own insight. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths. 2 Timothy 3:14-17 But as for you, continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it, and how from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All scripture is inspired by God and is* useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work. Matthew 9:9-13 As Jesus was walking along, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth; and he said to him, ‘Follow me.’ And he got up and followed him. And as he sat at dinner* in the house, many tax-collectors and sinners came and were sitting* with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, ‘Why does your teacher eat with tax-collectors and sinners?’ But when he heard this, he said, ‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.’ When I would do parent-teacher-student conferences when I taught middle school, I often took the approach of letting the student lead the conversation. It was better for everyone. Most of the time, the student KNEW what they needed to do. The question was, what would it take for them to take the lead, to have the discipline actually, to do what needed to be done. I have found that in most of my life, will I have the will to do what needs to be done? I know what to do. Will I?


Matthew was a tax collector. Jesus did not tell him, “Hey, get your act together! Stop robbing your neighbors and serving the invaders who occupy our country. Behave like you were raised, and follow me!” No, he just said, “Follow me.” He met Mattthew where he was and as he was, and Matthew being Matthew was good enough. Jesus did it for Matthew, and Jesus does it for us. An analogy I often use is that of soundboard, with a lot of little knobs to tweak things so they are just so. It was always daunting for me when I so one. So many knobs! Too often we think of our spiritual welfare as an on-off switch. Yes-No. Saved-Lost. But most of us are not in the binary, up-down, yes-no, right-wrong situation. When Jesus steps in, he says, you are already on, now let me sit down at the spiritual sound board and begin tweaking. And on this side of heaven he sits at our spiritual sound board and has his way with us, IF WE LET HIM. Matthew did, and got up and followed him. As St. Paul reminded Timothy in his letter to him, “But as for you, continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it, and how from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.” You know what to do, like the student in the conference, now will you? Most of us know what we have to do, if we really think about it. Will you? Will I? The Pharisees that wondered why Jesus would not play their superiority game and shun so-called sinners were told clearly the heart of God. “I desire mercy,” says God, “not sacrifice.” We need to show mercy in our dealings with folks, like Jesus did with Matthew. He met him where he was and as he was, and called him to his best self, the self he was born to be. Jesus showed him mercy. And as we hear the call of God in Christ, we need to follow, and that begins with Mercy. We need to show Mercy most often to ourself. We need to forget the warped and wrong vision we have ourselves that has been given to us from so many unhealthy things, and see ourselves as God sees us. We need to step away from the funhouse mirror our society is that misconstrues our true selves, and do what the reading from Proverbs reminded us to do. Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not rely on your own insight. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths. Amen


Monday, September 19, 2022

Year C Proper 20 2022 Shrewd About That Which Endures

 Year C Proper 20, 18 September 2022 St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA “Shrewd About That Which Endures” Collect: Grant us, Lord, not to be anxious about earthly things, but to love things heavenly; and even now, while we are placed among things that are passing away, to hold fast to those that shall endure; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. Luke 16:1-13 Jesus said to the disciples, "There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property. So he summoned him and said to him, `What is this that I hear about you? Give me an accounting of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.' Then the manager said to himself, `What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.' So, summoning his master's debtors one by one, he asked the first, `How much do you owe my master?' He answered, `A hundred jugs of olive oil.' He said to him, `Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.' Then he asked another, `And how much do you owe?' He replied, `A hundred containers of wheat.' He said to him, `Take your bill and make it eighty.' And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes. "Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth." Okay, friends. Good morning. Today I need you to put on your theological seatbelts and hold on for the ride we are about to go on. It may just surprise you, and the Gospel reading may not say what you think it says. It is a little confusing, admittedly. Even St. Augustine said of this parable, “I can’t believe this story came from the lips of our Lord.”(Feasting on the Gospels- Luke, Vol. 2, p. 210) So if you are confused, you are in good company. We have a common phrase, or something like one, “If only [fill-in-the-blank] would use their powers for good.” In a day and time that is filled with superhero movies and stories, this is an easy trope. You have powers, and you have a choice on how you will use them. And our wily manager today is someone who chose their powers for personal gain, and not for the greater good. But let’s look at what it says, and what it does not say, and what point Jesus was probably making in the telling of this tale. There are basically only a few types of parables, there are the “Nature of God” parables like the Dad in the Prodigal Son, and there are “Go and Do Likewise” parables like the Good Samaritan, and there are “How Much More” parables where those in the kingdom should do SO MUCH MORE than the example given like the Unrighteous Judge. This is obviously in the latter category, where Jesus is not telling us to be like this despicable character, but to look at how he does what he does and why he does what he does and learn from them. The Shrewd Manager calls in people who owe his master debts, pretty sizable debts which would make it almost impossible for a tenant farmer to ever pay back. Like Tennessee Ernie Ford’s Sixteen Tons, these farmers “owed their soul to the company store.” The manager had already lost his position for not taking care of business appropriately for his master, but he could use the last moments of authority that he had to take care of himself. He was going to lose in the short term, but he was going to make it so that he was taken care of in the long term where he could call in the favors he was extending today. `How much do you owe my master?' `A hundred jugs of olive oil.' `Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.' Then he asked another, `And how much do you owe?' `A hundred containers of wheat.' `Take your bill and make it eighty.' Then he gets commended by the master, not as in “Good job! You are great!” But I see it more like, “Okay, pretty smart! I see what you did there. And don’t let the door hit you on the way out.” He was commended for being wily, not for being good. The owner saw the wiley-ness of the manager, not the skill of the manager. Jesus himself says, “The children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.” The Children of the Light, God’s people, are not wily when they should be. So how is this explicitly encouraging to the disciples of Jesus? How are these instructions for us to grow in the Kingdom personally and to help the Kingdom grow? We need to be about playing the long game. We need to make wise decisions that stand the test of time to the best of our ability. We need to be shrewd, and at times, take calculated risks. And like I said, the phrase we have for it these days is more like “If only they would use their powers for good!” We have the abilities to do good, great things, but we do not think and act strategically and intentionally, like the Dishonest Manager. We also need to consider our long term care. What are we doing today that will have eternal significance? That is where Jesus gets us into the pithy sayings that we are more used to. "Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth." This is far more straight forward, part of the Great Reversal teachings of Jesus. It goes directly against the prevalent teaching of his day, and too often in ours, that if you are rich you are blessed. It comes back to intent, and motivation. Why do you do what you do? Jesus' story is about making sure to play the long game, and what could be longer than Eternity? If the Dishonest Manager can worry about his future, and make sure he is taken care of, what about you? What are you doing today that echoes through Eternity? What are doing daily to prepare your soul for… forever? When we speak about our daily devotions or the Daily Office, we are serious. How do build in today what you want your forever to be? Financial advisors say people spend more time planning their vacations than they do their retirement. Let me speak to you as your Spiritual Advisor. What are your plans for the inevitable? And what about our church. Last week I mentioned in our announcements how we are at the point of “All Hands On Deck!” For us to get back to the “normal,” new normal or old normal, I do not care, but for us to do that then we need folks to step up and commit. We have a wonderful way of stepping up and making things happen, like the care shown at Wiley Hughes Memorial Service yesterday. Thanks for all those who made the day special for the Hughes family! We will see more of that at today’s reception for Dawn, our new deacon. We are good at lending a helping hand. We just need to have more of that on our sign-up lists and volunteers in our youth and children’s ministries. If we are so focused on putting out today’s fires, it is nigh impossible for us to play the long game that Jesus encourages us to be about today. We have to be intentional and strategic which takes vision, time, planning, and implementation. Our pavilion has been years in the making, months in the paperwork, and it will be weeks in the building. But it took time to see it, envision its use, and commitment for it to come to reality. We saw we could do it, and now we are doing it. Thanks be to God! There are few things that last. I had opportunity to preach on this text this week at the old school where I used to teach, Anna Julia Cooper School on Church Hill down in the city. Preaching at a middle school sermon is a bit different than a formal Sunday morning service. I started with the phrase that we used in our collect for today: while we are placed among things that are passing away, to hold fast to those that shall endure… So I asked the kids what lasted forever. Their answers were things you might expect. Mountains. (Remember, we are talking about kids, here.) Family. Love. God. The Agape Love of the Family of God is closer to what I am going for. But all their answers were good. We are called to move deeper into the Kingdom of God, and be strategic and intentional about growing said Kingdom is what we are really talking about. This crazy parable says as much. Friends, invest in things that will bring the greatest return. Look to your right. Look to your left. Look in the mirror. These things, these beloved children of God, yourself included, are of the greatest value for we are the very image of God and nothing is greater in all creation.


As we care for everyone, especially the “least of these” as Jesus called those in need, then we are really doing it for him. The Dishonest Manager was only looking out for himself. He appeared to be taking care of those in debt, only to ask for payback later. We give and help freely, because that is what Christ would have us do. Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much. May we be found faithful. Amen


Sunday, September 11, 2022

Year C Proper 19 2022 Come Home

 Year C Proper 19, 11 September 2022

St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA

“Come Home”


Collect: O God, because without you we are not able to please you, mercifully grant that your Holy Spirit may in all things direct and rule our hearts; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.


1 Timothy 1:12-17

I am grateful to Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, because he judged me faithful and appointed me to his service, even though I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners-- of whom I am the foremost. But for that very reason I received mercy, so that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display the utmost patience, making me an example to those who would come to believe in him for eternal life. To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.


Luke 15:1-10

All the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, "This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them."

So he told them this parable: "Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, `Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.' Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.

"Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, `Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.' Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents."



No excuses. Not a one of us has any excuses. We, each and every one of us, are being told the nature of God. Jesus could not have been more clear. Jesus did not come that we might mend our ways to get into heaven, he came to get us into heaven so that we could mend our ways. We think we owe somebody something. But we grow where we are planted. If we reside in a place that is healthy and nurturing, guess what? We tend to get healthy and nurtured.


This has been proven repeatedly in long-term experiments which have proven true with the unhoused. Too often we have had short-term transitional housing or had sobriety and drug testing before any aid can be extended. Housing First programs reverse the process, getting people in long-term if not permanent housing. This has been repeatedly proven to be successful. Put a permanent roof over someone’s head, and guess what, people get better, often very quickly. Lack of housing is the problem, not the people. Jesus did the same thing for us, welcoming and encouraging us to get into relationship with God before requiring us to get our acts together. Grace comes first, and grace bats last. And grace is present throughout. We can get our act together because of the love and nurture that enables us to have the strength and encouragement to do the hard work needed.



Grace is the theme of Western stories and novels, and we still find it amazing. It has been that way since the beginning.


In our reading from First Timothy today, St. Paul is writing to his  protégé, and reminding him of where he himself came from and how thankful he was.

I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners-- of whom I am the foremost.


St. Paul is basically saying, if I am redeemable and worthy of Grace anyone is. The call of the Church should be “Come home! Come home!”


Lost sheep? Lost coin? Come home. Come home.


“Lassie, go get Timmy and tell him it’s time to ‘Come Home.’”


We still are amazed by Grace.


I have been witnessing the outpouring of love and grief expressed over Queen Elizabeth’s passing on Thursday. She was 96, and it was no surprise to anyone. She had loved a long, good life, and had been a consistent constant since the time of Winston Churchill. This is not ancient history. For 7 decades she led, not just lived, always in the spotlight wherever she went, dismantling empire, building up a commonwealth of nations, devoted mother, grandmother, a woman leader in a time when that was unheard of, not just rare. I saw a funny picture of her greeting the Beatles, who were usually the spotlight. They were fawning over her, not the other way around.


Wealthy, yes, beyond most of our comprehension, but also a person of deep faith. As Episcopalians we feel an affinity as she was the supreme governor of the Church of England, our Mother Church. We pray for our Archbishop of Canterbury, but she appoints them. Do not forget that. Tangentially, she affected us through her leadership and work. But she was also a person of deep piety and faith.


Before her coronation during her Christmas address in 1952, she said this, “Pray for me … that God may give me wisdom and strength to carry out the solemn promises I shall be making, and that I may faithfully serve Him and you, all the days of my life.”


Her Christmas addresses were always written by her personally.


And speaking of her faith, the Queen said this in her Christmas broadcast in December 2000: 

‘For me the teachings of Christ and my own personal accountability before God provide a framework in which I try to lead my life.’


To enlighten us a bit more, I found this:


The Queen was crowned in a deeply symbolic church service devised in AD 973 and including prayers and a service of Holy Communion. The orb, scepter, ring and crown used in the ceremony each include a cross to symbolize the rule of Jesus Christ over the world. Even though the crown jewels are set with many of the world’s most valuable gems, a Bible is presented during the coronation and described as ‘the most valuable thing that this world affords’.


The most sacred moment at the heart of the ceremony is the anointing, when the symbols of royal status are removed. The Queen, sitting under a canopy to hide the sacred moment from the cameras, was dressed in a simple white dress with no jewels or crown. As the Archbishop anointed her with oil, the prayers said over her invited God’s Holy Spirit to set her apart as God’s servant. Christians believe that God’s anointing fills his people with his love and empowers them to follow him. Source


No matter your thoughts on the monarchy, or any monarchy, in Elizabeth II, we see a human who chose to serve with her whole life, what she said, did, and thought. Though royal by blood, she was a sinner redeemed by the blood of Christ, and took that as her most important treasure. People I have met who have had interactions with her emphasize how important her faith was to her, and we trust that she is seeing the outcome of that gift of grace and her faithful response to it. As King Charles III said, "To my darling mama, as you begin your last great journey, I want simply to say this: Thank you."


At last, even the Queen comes home.


Friends, Grace, whomever receives it, however it is given, is amazing.


When I was very young there was a song that topped the charts. It was Song of the Year at the Grammys. It touched a nerve. It spoke to the soul.


I looked up the story behind the song, and it was even better than the hit. This is from one of the songwriters, L. Russell Brown, on his inspiration.

I was reading the Reader's Digest. … I read it from front to back. There was an article … it was about a soldier coming home from Andersonville Prison in the Civil War and he was going to Pennsylvania. He told his girl in a letter, "I'll understand if I should stay on the stagecoach. But if I shouldn't, tie a big yellow handkerchief on the big oak tree outside of town. And then I'll know if it's there, I should get off, but I'll understand that you found someone else in the last three years." He couldn't bear to look at it himself. So he told the other people in the stagecoach and the driver to please look. … When they got to the big oak tree, everybody yelled and screamed. He looked out the window, and it was covered with yellow handkerchiefs. A chill went up my neck. I said, "My God!" … I said, "Boy, that would make a great song." 

Source:https://www.tennessean.com/story/entertainment/music/story-behind-the-song/2018/11/09/tie-yellow-ribbon-tony-orlando-dawn-l-russell-brown/1895280002/


🎵So tie a yellow ribbon round the ole’ oak tree…🎵


We have been tying yellow ribbons ever since. We are decades into people not knowing why. It is a sign of being welcomed home, no questions asked.


And that, friends, is Grace.


Today we start our program year. We welcome back Sunday School classes. We resume offering a nursery for the youngest among us.


Some places call this weekend Fall Kick-Off. Some call it Homecoming. Whatever you call it, we start fresh today. A good metaphor for what Church should always be.


We could have, maybe should have, tied ribbons around the trees out front as we resume our program year. We are glad you are here. We are glad we are on this journey together. We venture out in faith and hope for what is to come, and thankful that we are still here and at work while we hear the call… Join me if you know the words.

Softly and tenderly Jesus is calling,

calling for you and for me;

see, on the portals he's waiting and watching,

watching for you and for me.


Come home, come home;

you who are weary come home;

earnestly, tenderly, Jesus is calling,

calling, O sinner, come home!


Sunday, September 4, 2022

Year C Proper 18 2022 In the Potter's Hands

Year C Proper 18, September 4, 2022

St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA

“In the Potter’s Hands”


Collect: Grant us, O Lord, to trust in you with all our hearts; for, as you always resist the proud who confide in their own strength, so you never forsake those who make their boast of your mercy; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Jeremiah 18:1-11

The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: "Come, go down to the potter's house, and there I will let you hear my words." So I went down to the potter's house, and there he was working at his wheel. The vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter's hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as seemed good to him.

Then the word of the Lord came to me: Can I not do with you, O house of Israel, just as this potter has done? says the Lord. Just like the clay in the potter's hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel. At one moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, but if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will change my mind about the disaster that I intended to bring on it. And at another moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it, but if it does evil in my sight, not listening to my voice, then I will change my mind about the good that I had intended to do to it. Now, therefore, say to the people of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem: Thus says the Lord: Look, I am a potter shaping evil against you and devising a plan against you. Turn now, all of you from your evil way, and amend your ways and your doings.

Philemon 1-21

Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother,

To Philemon our dear friend and co-worker, to Apphia our sister, to Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church in your house:

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

When I remember you in my prayers, I always thank my God because I hear of your love for all the saints and your faith toward the Lord Jesus. I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective when you perceive all the good that we may do for Christ. I have indeed received much joy and encouragement from your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you, my brother.

For this reason, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do your duty, yet I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love-- and I, Paul, do this as an old man, and now also as a prisoner of Christ Jesus. I am appealing to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I have become during my imprisonment. Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful both to you and to me. I am sending him, that is, my own heart, back to you. I wanted to keep him with me, so that he might be of service to me in your place during my imprisonment for the gospel; but I preferred to do nothing without your consent, in order that your good deed might be voluntary and not something forced. Perhaps this is the reason he was separated from you for a while, so that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother-- especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.

So if you consider me your partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. If he has wronged you in any way, or owes you anything, charge that to my account. I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand: I will repay it. I say nothing about your owing me even your own self. Yes, brother, let me have this benefit from you in the Lord! Refresh my heart in Christ. Confident of your obedience, I am writing to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say.

Luke 14:25-33

Now large crowds were traveling with Jesus; and he turned and said to them, "Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, saying, `This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.' Or what king, going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand? If he cannot, then, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for the terms of peace. So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions."



Good morning, friends. Tomorrow is Labor Day, a day set aside for the common person, the working person, to celebrate the fruit of their labors. It came from labor activists and labor unionists who demanded a federal holiday recognizing the contributions workers have made to America's strength, prosperity, and well-being. This is a good thing.


And today when we pause and slow down for a day, we can extend our Sabbath, and appreciate what we have. But I would invite you to also ponder this Labor Day weekend the work of the Lord in our lives.


We may see the work we do for God and our end of things, but the Lord is at work in our lives and, I believe, the Lord is at work on US, our very selves. When we give ourselves over to God in baptism, we invite God in, and allow God to make Godself at home. But it is more than that. We give our hearts, souls, and minds to the Almighty, and that is a dangerous thing. Dangerous to the way things are. When we give ourselves over to God, we give all we have and all we are over. And in today’s readings we will hear a lot of that “all or nothing” language. It sounds harsh, but it only does if we are holding back from what God would have us do, from who God would have us be.


Do not shut down your ears, friends. And open up your hearts.


It is a rare occasion when I preach from the Old Testament lesson. I will often make mention of it, along with the New Testament reading, but I feel like Jeremiah gives us a hook that enables us to read better the seemingly harsher statements of Paul in Philemon and Jesus in Luke.


God gives Jeremiah the imagery of a Potter’s House. And urges him to go down and take a look. Too often we leave the object lessons for Children’s Messages. I have often found that we all learn better from the concrete, than the abstract. In other churches where I have served we have had a weekly children’s moment, and the concrete object lesson stuck weeks after very often, much longer than any sermon I tried to give.


So God gives Jeremiah a message to share with Israel that resonates still today. We can see it. You may even be able to feel it. God spins the image of the clay in the potter’s hands. He is making a vessel, and upon or nearing completion sees that this was not his intent, not at all what he wanted. So the Potter takes the pot while it is still malleable and begins again. Adds a little water, puts it back on the wheel, and does with it as the Potter will. The clay is in the Potter’s hands. 


We are the clay. We, when we give ourselves over to God, are put into situations that are no longer up to us. We are clay in God’s hands.


If you are like me, that sounds uncomfortable at best, scary maybe. It no longer allows us to promote our ego, or our prejudices, or our power, or our possessions before anything else. It is God’s way that comes first. And that wrestling, it does not stop. Remember the name Israel means those who wrestle with God. On this side of heaven I am not sure we ever arrive. I have called myself a Christian for over 40 years, I have been ordained three times (third times the charm, I hope) but every morning I must decide “this day whom [I] will serve.” Or to put it in Jeremiah’s analogy, today will I be the clay in the hands of the Potter? Will I be open and malleable for what God needs me to do, who God needs me to be this day?


That is so easy to say yes to in church on a Sunday, but on Monday morning, Tuesday, Wednesday, when I roll out of bed and put my feet on the floor, who am I following? Whose path am I on?


This idea that nothing is off limits when we place ourselves into God’s hands is what is happening in Philemon. Onesimus was a slave to Philemon, and he ran away. He claimed his freedom in Christ, and ran off. Even for a good reason, to help Paul in his ministry, Paul realized in the world that they lived in that there were repercussions. Now this book has been used to justify slavery, as in “See, Paul said he would pay for him, so slavery is okay.” I do not, I cannot, see it saying that at all. But Paul was showing how he took Jesus’ words to hate his worldly possessions in favor of the Kingdom. He was willing to pay for Onesimus if he had to, but he was appealing to Philemon’s best self. 


And Jesus does the same. He is a story teller. He uses exaggeration to make a point. Do we own stuff? 

Yes. Of course. 


Do we love our family, especially our moms? 

Yes. Of course.


But Jesus is saying that all this comes into play in our commitments to Christ. “Give up” all our possessions is not so much about poverty as it is about control. “Hating” our family is about our priorities, not despising anyone. Our stuff is no longer “our stuff.” Our loved ones are no longer just “our loved ones.” Nothing is off limits when we place ourselves into the hands of God. 


One thing that I so appreciate so much about you all, is how St. James the Less takes care of me and my family. But in that care, you also do not project unhealthy expectations onto my family. You let my kids be kids. You let my wife be who she is. Now they help a lot, acolyting and doing the service recording and other things. They do it because this is their church, too. But for me to be the best priest for you all, I needed to be a member of the community and the use of the rectory enabled us to be here amongst you. It took a commitment of both of us. We both had to go all in for this to work, and I and my family are so appreciative. And it enables me to of you, and not just with you.


And that is what I think Jesus is saying and doing here. He is telling us the expectation, “Are you all in?” He talks about a building project, or waging a military campaign. You cannot leap a chasm in two leaps. You have to commit to make it. You cannot go half in and make it.




We received news this week that we have finally gotten our building permit for our pavilion out back. This has been a LONG time coming, 9 months. Before we committed to even starting the project, we planned and prayed. We knew we would have to do a capital campaign to pay for it. We knew that we would space it out over years to make it possible to do the work we have spelled out. It took faith to commit. It took planning and considering all our options to make sure we could accomplish the goals. We had to have the funds to pay for the steps along the way, as we had money coming in to accomplish our commitments. Could we do it realistically? Could we float the payments, even as the money came in? When we knew that this was realistic, and accomplished our desired goals, we committed. We signed contracts, and shook hands. And this week we break ground. Our vision becomes reality. Thanks be to God, and to you all for your patience.


God has a dream for you. It will cost you. It will cost you the status quo. It will require work. It will require being uncomfortable. It will be better than you can imagine.


For any dream to come true you have to be able to see it in your mind’s eye, just like the Potter’s vision of the vessel they want to make. They have to see it to be able to make it. God sees your best self and wants to make it so. It takes committing to the work needed, and malleability, though you may be set in your ways like that pot that needs to be reworked. And after all that, vision, commitment, and hard work, a work of art can be made real. We just have to trust the Potter, and put ourselves in the Potter’s hands.


So why?


We do it because God loves us. And God’s desire since the Garden of Eden is to make God’s home with us, and be at one with us. The beautiful conclusion of John’s vision in Revelation ends this way, God’s dream since the very beginning itself.


Revelation 21:1-5

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,

“See, the home of God is among mortals.

He will dwell with them;

they will be his peoples,

and God himself will be with them and be their God;

he will wipe every tear from their eyes.

Death will be no more;

mourning and crying and pain will be no more,

for the first things have passed away.”

And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.”


Do we see this in our mind’s eye? Will we commit to the costs it will demand? We will hand over the keys and trust in the outcome?


If we believe God is love and wants the best for us, how could we not? Chew on that, friends. And happy Labor Day weekend. Amen


 

Wednesday, August 31, 2022

Year C Proper 17 WED 2022 Death and Truth

 Year C Proper 17 WEDNESDAY, 30 August 2022

St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA
“Death and Truth”


Collect: Lord of all power and might, the author and giver of all good things: Graft in our hearts the love of your Name; increase in us true religion; nourish us with all goodness; and bring forth in us the fruit of good works; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God for ever and ever. Amen.


Acts 12:18-25

When morning came, there was no small commotion among the soldiers over what had become of Peter. When Herod had searched for him and could not find him, he examined the guards and ordered them to be put to death. Then he went down from Judea to Caesarea and stayed there.

Now Herod* was angry with the people of Tyre and Sidon. So they came to him in a body; and after winning over Blastus, the king’s chamberlain, they asked for a reconciliation, because their country depended on the king’s country for food. On an appointed day Herod put on his royal robes, took his seat on the platform, and delivered a public address to them. The people kept shouting, ‘The voice of a god, and not of a mortal!’ And immediately, because he had not given the glory to God, an angel of the Lord struck him down, and he was eaten by worms and died.

But the word of God continued to advance and gain adherents. Then after completing their mission Barnabas and Saul returned to* Jerusalem and brought with them John, whose other name was Mark. 


John 8:47-59

Jesus said: ‘Whoever is from God hears the words of God. The reason you do not hear them is that you are not from God.’

The [Jewish religious leaders] answered him, ‘Are we not right in saying that you are a Samaritan and have a demon?’ Jesus answered, ‘I do not have a demon; but I honor my Father, and you dishonor me. Yet I do not seek my own glory; there is one who seeks it and he is the judge. Very truly, I tell you, whoever keeps my word will never see death.’ The [Jewish religious leaders] said to him, ‘Now we know that you have a demon. Abraham died, and so did the prophets; yet you say, “Whoever keeps my word will never taste death.” Are you greater than our father Abraham, who died? The prophets also died. Who do you claim to be?’ Jesus answered, ‘If I glorify myself, my glory is nothing. It is my Father who glorifies me, he of whom you say, “He is our God”, though you do not know him. But I know him; if I were to say that I do not know him, I would be a liar like you. But I do know him and I keep his word. Your ancestor Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day; he saw it and was glad.’ Then the Jews said to him, ‘You are not yet fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham?’ Jesus said to them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, before Abraham was, I am.’ So they picked up stones to throw at him, but Jesus hid himself and went out of the temple.


I must admit, really troubled by today’s readings, attempted murder, regicide, hubris. Hard to see, must less share, the Good News from today’s readings.


I have mentioned before the wonderful mat behind the pulpit over at Shiloh Baptist, our sister church, that says “Preach so they can see Jesus.” 


At the end of the reading this morning, we see Jesus hiding and getting away before he could be stoned to death. Hard to talk about the Good News in that.


But it does make us confront the fact, that as people of God we are sometimes required to speak the truth in love, and that truth can be very hard to hear. So the first response is to kill the messenger. Literally or metaphorically.


But speaking the truth in love is what we are called to do.



In the Acts reading, we see people praising Herod, saying how he speaks like a God instead of a man. He was speaking, but was it the truth? Was it the truth in love?


So that I do not add commentary, I will say clearly what the outcome is for Herod and the Church:

And immediately, because he had not given the glory to God, an angel of the Lord struck [Herod] down, and he was eaten by worms and died. But the word of God continued to advance and gain adherents.


Yeah for the Church? I think?


We do not live in a fully redeemed world. We still must fight the good fight, and do what the Lord requires of us. Sometimes that is hard. Sometimes people will resent and try to silence us. Sometimes that opposition comes from those we think of as friends and families. That makes the stabs in the back even more painful. Et tu, Brute?


The Call of God is a lifelong commitment, and Jesus tells us that to follow him we will have to “take up [our] cross.”


One analogy I hold onto is that the world we are living in is much like the time between D-Day and VE day. The war was over once the Allies invaded Europe, but there was a lot of pain, and suffering, and sacrifice to come before Victory was fully won.


Christ has won over sin and death, and we are in the campaign to bring the culmination of the story. Have faith, and especially have hope when times are hard. We know how the story ends. Amen