Thursday, April 18, 2019

Year C Maundy Thursday 2019 Real & True

Year C Maundy Thursday, 18 April 2019
St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA
“Real and True”

Collect: Almighty Father, whose dear Son, on the night before he suffered, instituted the Sacrament of his Body and Blood: Mercifully grant that we may receive it thankfully in remembrance of Jesus Christ our Lord, who in these holy mysteries gives us a pledge of eternal life; and who now lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

1 Corinthians 11:23-26
I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, "This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me." In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, "This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me." For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes.

John 13:1-17, 31b-35
Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him. And during supper Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples' feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him. He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, "Lord, are you going to wash my feet?" Jesus answered, "You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand." Peter said to him, "You will never wash my feet." Jesus answered, "Unless I wash you, you have no share with me." Simon Peter said to him, "Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!" Jesus said to him, "One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet, but is entirely clean. And you are clean, though not all of you." For he knew who was to betray him; for this reason he said, "Not all of you are clean."

After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, "Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord--and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.

"Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, `Where I am going, you cannot come.' I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another."



When I wrote a book, I had one idea in mind. I wanted to get down in one place what I hold most dear, what I treasure. I wrote it with my girls in mind. They were my audience. I wanted them to hear from me, what I hold most dear from living this life. Now I treasure them more which is why I wrote it for them, but also I obviously treasure my ideas, which is why I wrote a book.

Lora Robins Gallery at the University of Richmond opened when I was in school. It was the most eclectic, bizarre collection of nature items, fossils, realistic clay figures, all kinds of stuff. Taken from the Robins family home, the museum was a glimpse into her treasures. Walking through it gained an insight to a fascinating, different take on the world. Her treasures spoke to who she was and what she loved.

Jesus said, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” This is a way to see people, to ponder their hearts.

Think on this. If you knew you were going to die tomorrow, what would you get up and do? Who would you run to see? What would you treasure most in all the world so much that you would run to it and hold it close, if only a moment in your final hours?

Jesus treasured his friends, his disciples. He even says in our readings opening verse that he “loved them to the end.” He wanted them to learn from him one last time. He did not run away to save himself. He went to the planned dinner, the Passover meal. He modeled servant leadership. If you want to be my disciples, what did he want them to do? “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” Later they did. They remembered how he humbled himself. How he touched them. How he took the role of the servant even though they called him Lord.

Even more, he led them in a sign and symbol they could take with them. The Bread. The Cup. Taking the ordinary on and making it sacred. Whenever they take this, he will be there. Real and true.

When I was a boy, I won the Good Citizenship Award in kindergarten. I got a badge made out of a pie tin, and I got a sheet of Goetze’s Caramels. When I got home I was so proud. I wore my pie tin Good Citizen badge all day. That night when my dad got home, after dinner he went out to work in his workshop. I took that flat of Caramel Cremes out to him. My dad said that that was his favorite candy. I already knew that which is why I took it out to share. We sat in the bench swing between two trees and ate every last one of them. When I see a bag of Goetze’s Caramel Cremes to this day, I think of my dad. When I taste one, I immediately am six again, and my dad is with me. Real and true. Those sensory memories do not go away.

Jesus did the same for us in the Last Supper. He gave us a sensory reminder, a touchstone through sight, and touch, and taste where we can pause and connect with this one we love. When Jesus told his disciples that he would be with them, and they handed it on to those they brought up in the faith, and they their pupils, and so on, and so on, and so on tonight we may feel Jesus there. Instantaneously we trigger those memories, those feelings, that presence. Real and true.

Lastly, he gave them final instructions before he went away.
I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.

When we are loving, we are claiming who we are and whose we are.

But wait, there has to be more to it than that, right? Nope.

“Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him..” I John 4:7-9

That is what it takes, real and true love makes us real and true disciples. Not conditional. Not situational. Not self-serving. Real and true.

Tonight as we ponder the last supper, that intentional and deliberate time Jesus chose to take and share with his friends may we cling to that. What do you pour your life into? What do you treasure?

No one on their deathbed says they wish they had spent more time at work.

Watch the sunset. Share the joke. Sit and hold hands. Love people through their worst selves and call them to a higher place.

Now unlike Jesus, we never know when our last may come. We never know when we have our last anything. Few of us are cursed with that knowledge. So what do we do with that knowledge?

Live each day like its your last. Don’t postpone joy. Even more, don’t postpone love. Be Real. Be True. As I have blessed you before, I do so now:
Life is short and we do not have much time
to gladden the hearts of those who travel with us.
So be quick to love, and make haste to be kind.
And the blessing of God Almighty,
the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit
be among you, and remain with you forever. Amen

Sunday, April 14, 2019

Year C Palm Sunday 2019 The Time of our Visitation

Year C Palm Sunday 14 April 2019
St. James the Less Episcopal Church, Ashland, VA
“The Time of our Visitation”


Collect: Almighty and everliving God, in your tender love for the human race you sent your Son our Savior Jesus Christ to take upon him our nature, and to suffer death upon the cross, giving us the example of his great humility: Mercifully grant that we may walk in the way of his suffering, and also share in his resurrection; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Today's Texts Because of the length of the Passion narrative, I am just providing a link to today’s texts.

Grief takes many forms. We linger in anticipatory grief knowing the rest of the story.

There is an irony amidst all the joy of this day. Despite the of the shouts of Hosanna, Jesus grieved, for what he saw coming, and for what has been. In fact, the opening reading outside stopped short of a very important verse in Luke. Peeling it back, hear again why we call this day Palm Sunday, the Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem, and why from Luke’s account I lean on a reading in grief...

Luke 19: 37-44
As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, saying,
     “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!
          Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!”
Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.” He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”


And then immediately the text goes on to this...

As he came near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, “If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. Indeed, the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up ramparts around you and surround you, and hem you in on every side. They will crush you to the ground, you and your children within you, and they will not leave within you one stone upon another; because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God.”

For Jesus, what we see as Triumphant is heartbreaking. He knows the way the City of God should be, could be, and how so far from its intent it is. He weeps for Jerusalem, while the echoes of Hosanna are still ringing in the hills. It is what it is. Much like our hearts, there is so much more that could be, should be. It begs the question, “How do I cause Jesus to weep?”

Jesus knows what this week will bring, since at the Mount of Transfiguration he has turned his face to Jerusalem, the outcome was known. In the Gospels over and over he tells the disciples what is to come. Do they not listen? Do they not understand? Do they take it as metaphor, while Jesus is being open and honest?

Look at the Gospels, and see from sheer percentage how much of each one is devoted to this one week. From Palm Sunday to Easter we have so much in detail, the Whos, the Whats, the Wheres of the Story. We call it Holy, and remember Holy means “set apart.” One of the reasons it is so set apart is because we have it in such intimate detail. It is Holy even more for what those details are.

And we have only told a part of the story this morning. We stopped on the brink of Golgotha. We stopped when Jesus is grouped with two criminals. We stopped where he is at the point of no return. The Cavalry is not coming in for a dramatic rescue, for we are at Calvary. There will be no rescue. And even here we see his life shaped by the Grace he preached. Even here we see him living the message to the very end.

Like the Centurion at the Cross may we also see and believe. Do we proclaim like he did, “Surely this man is innocent. Surely this man is the Son of God.”

I said this day is tainted by grief. Grief for what was to come. Grief for what was not ever to be. Grief over life. We grieve because we Love. We grieve because we Hope. We grieve because we Live. It has been said that “Man is the only animal that knows it's going to die.” In his death we see our own. In his grief we see our mortality. If one so good, so righteous, so loving can be treated thus, what can we expect?

Would we be able to walk with such faith, such hope, such love? Would we be able to walk between the shouts of Hosanna knowing that they would so quickly shift to “Crucify! Crucify! Crucify!”? Would we turn the other cheek with the mocking, the scorn, the gloating when we knew how wrong those others were? Would we restrain the very angelic host of heaven for Love’s Sake?

God loves us so much that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us. [John 3:16-17] Stay with us this week. Stay with us as the greatest story ever told unfolds. The deeply moving goodbyes of Maundy Thursday, the depths of the shadow of death on Friday, and the surprising and unexpected third act of Easter. I said it last year, and I will say it again, if you can make only one service a year I would ask you to make it the Easter Vigil Saturday night at 8 p.m. If you can only make three this year, then come for all three acts of an unforgettable drama. Thursday at 7 p.m., Friday at 7 p.m., and Saturday night at 8. It is all we say we believe in three distinct acts. The choir has been gearing up for weeks, Harrison and I are getting our sermons in gear. But even in all the preparations, it is service to the life-changing story of the Passion of our Christ, our Messiah. My prayer is that you will come and be a part, and take this good news with you into your life and work. Amen

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Year C Lent 5 WED 2019 The Good Shepherd's Goal

Year C Lent 5 WEDNESDAY, 10 April 2019
St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA
“The Good Shepherd’s Goal”


John 10:1-18
“Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.” Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.
So again Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.
“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.”



Once I heard the famous seminary professor Fred Craddock talk about the skill and craft of Preaching. In fact his text, Preaching, is required reading for many a seminary student. His argument is that most preachers preach from a single text, most a single verse. Because he was speaking to a room full of preachers, he encouraged us to filter down our preaching, what is it that we repeatedly come back to, what touchstone keeps coming up in our teaching and preaching.

It did not take me long to get down to my preaching Least Common Denominator. It is even in my Facebook description of myself. Not the whole verse, but the phrasing and homage is there.

It is even in today’s passage. Now the second half of this passage was one of the readings at my ordination to the priesthood, the part that begins “I am the Good Shepherd…” And I asked Bishop Shannon if we could include my key verse, my Fred Craddock One Verse, in the reading. I so appreciated that the Bishop said yes.

So I am opening up the curtain, and telling you something to look for in my teaching and preaching. I am giving you one of my tells, my main one. Look for it whenever I get up to talk, because in all of Scripture I cannot think of anything that summarizes the point of goal of faith better.

It gives us a direction, a purpose, and a way to get there. So have you figured out what I seem to have found so important?

It is the second half of almost a throwaway verse. The first half, out of context, makes us wonder what on earth Jesus was trying to get at, but it becomes clear with the second half.

Enough talking around it. My key verse is John 10:10, emphasis on the second half, please. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly. And who is the “they” that Jesus came to bring life? We, YOU AND ME, we are the “they.” We are the sheep who go in and out through the gate, where the Good Shepherd resides. We are allowed to go in and out, not controlled, but cared for. Jesus says, “I am the Good Shepherd.” He encourages us to go out, live life to its fullest. To be the best you you can be. Thanks be to God!

So that begs the question today. How is your life Abundant? How can you live that Abundant Life? Maybe you are. Jesus wants you to be all that you can be and more. He came for that. His teachings lead you to that. He died for that. The Good Shepherd lays down his life for his sheep. Not fear, Abundance. Amen

Sunday, April 7, 2019

Year C Lent 5 2019 Don't Look Back

Year C Lent 5, 7 April 2019
St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA
“Don’t Look Back"


Collect
: Almighty God, you alone can bring into order the unruly wills and affections of sinners: Grant your people grace to love what you command and desire what you promise; that, among the swift and varied changes of the world, our hearts may surely there be fixed where true joys are to be found; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Philippians 3:4b-14
If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.

Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.

Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.

John 12:1-8
Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus' feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, "Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?" (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) Jesus said, "Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me."


How do you say “I love you.”? J’taime. Te amo. Ego amo te. Ich liebe dich. Medo wo. But I am not talking about language, necessarily. We all have our ways to say I love you.

For some it is saying the words, words of affirmation, “You are so wonderful.”, “You look really nice today.”.

For some it is physical contact, holding hands, a hug.

For some it is acts of service, doing the little things that make life easier.

For some it is quality time, time set aside with special effort and intention, a party, a candlelight dinner, a getaway.

We all have our ways of saying I love you. We all have our ways of needing to hear I love you. One of the greatest needs in relationships is speaking the language our loved ones need. The stereotypical Ugly American going to another country and assuming people need to speak our language is what happens in many a non-functional relationship. Speaking louder is not going to help, overseas or in a relationship. And too often that lands people in my office or marriage counselors.

For some saying I love you is the giving of gifts. That could mean bringing home a favorite ice cream. Or something special in a box from Tiffany’s. Or an alabaster jar of perfume. My guess would be that Mary’s love language was the giving of gifts. And she took her greatest possession, and gave it freely, openly, extravagantly.

Notice here that Judas, and John presumes a motive, complains about how she says I love you. He does not speak her love language, and calls it a waste. Garrison Keillor said once, “Anything done for a child is never a waste.” I thoroughly believe that. Anything done for Love is much the same. Last week I told you that the Prodigal means Lavish, and we have slapped it on the Lost Son in the parable. But Prodigal Mary is far more an apt description. She is lavish in her public statement of how much she loves Jesus. She gives her absolute best in expressing her devotion.

Let us not forget, Martha, though. What is her love language? Acts of service. Remember when she complained to Jesus about her sister, “Tell her to get in here and help me?” Her love language is service. [Thank you, Altar Guild. Thank you, Facilities Team.] Let us not forget that the place of Martha’s prodigal, lavish act was a dinner Martha made and served. We tend to forget that part because it is less flamboyant and memorable.

The other part of the story we need to acknowledge is the context. We are in Chapter 12 of John. What happens in Chapter 11? The raising of Lazarus from the dead, Mary’s brother. And Lazarus is sitting at the table with Jesus, no longer rotting in the grave. Mary’s act of love is an act of worship in response to Grace. She COULD NEVER pay Jesus back for the gift of life for her brother. NEVER, EVER. All she can do is live in that gift. Live in that Love.

When we are in Love we do all kinds of things that make no rational sense. As my grandmother used to say, 
Love is such a funny thing, it’s kind of like a lizard. 
it curls itself upon its back and crawls into your gizzard.
And when it gets down in our gizzard, we do things that are unexpected, extravagant, and beautiful.

It makes us forget what has come before. There is a reason we still read Romeo and Juliet, because we probably remember being that crazy in love. At least for a moment. We are willing to fling off everything. We are willing to forsake whatever has come before. In the famous balcony scene, Juliet expresses this:
O Romeo, Romeo! Wherefore art thou Romeo?
Deny thy father and refuse thy name.
Or, if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love,
And I’ll no longer be a Capulet…
'Tis but thy name that is my enemy.
Thou art thyself, though not a Montague.
What’s Montague? It is nor hand, nor foot,
Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part
Belonging to a man. O, be some other name!
What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other word would smell as sweet.
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo called,
Retain that dear perfection which he owes
Without that title. Romeo, doff thy name,
And for that name, which is no part of thee
Take all myself.
And that is what it all comes back to, how do we say I love you. This is the very thing Paul is getting at in our reading to the Philippians. He is pleading with them to forsake their fathers and forsake their name. He did, and he didn’t look back!

Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.

Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.

In Christ he had found what he had always been looking for. When he studied the Law of Moses, the Torah, he wanted to know what God required. When he persecuted the Church in the very name of God, he was attempting to uphold what he thought to be true. Then in a moment of revelation, he saw the truth and the truth set him free. We look to that moment, but we forget the years in Arabia he spent wrestling with this newfound truth and learning to live in the path of peace, the way of Grace and Love.

I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection
, this is his driving force. And how does he say I love you to Christ? He says the words. He does the first century equivalent of renting billboards and proposing at a sporting event on the Jumbotron. He travels and preaches and suffers and eventually dies to let others know the wonders, the glories, the Grace he has found. He is so in love he strives to know Christ all the more.


C.S. Lewis castigates us for being half-hearted in our love.
“It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”
We are in the season of preparation for the greatest story ever told, of how God loved us so much that God took away all hurdles and excuses. God slipped into our skin and moved into the neighborhood so we could hear it directly what he asks of us, to love God, Others, Self with all we have been given. Just like God loved us. And so we would get the picture God showed us this, that he loves us to Death. And then when we thought the story was over, he showed us that LOVE ALWAYS WINS. That story has been given a name, the Passion, because it is all about LOVE. As our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry has repeatedly said in person and on the world’s stage, “If it’s not about Love, it’s not about God.”

If someone loves me that much, I want to know everything about them that I can know. I step up, and give my very best. My alabaster jar of nard, whatever that is for me. It may be shouting it from the rooftops, or the pulpit. It may be visiting the friendless and the forgotten. It may be using a special skill, like accounting, to help the Church keep its financials ship-shape. It may have been coming to sweep down the cobwebs yesterday morning. It may be polishing the silver in the Sacristy, and ironing the linen. It may be showing up on Thursday to rehearse, to sing the glories of God on Sunday. It may be fixing coffee so we can gather and share the love after services. We all have our ways loving God. Let us not be Judas and pooh-pooh anyone else’s I love you.

Embrace that love. Live that love. And don’t look back. Amen

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Year C Lent 4 WED 2019 Reshaped for a Reason

Year C Lent 4 WEDNESDAY, 3 April 2019
St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA
“Reshaped for a Reason”


Collect: Gracious Father, whose blessed Son Jesus Christ came down from heaven to be the true bread which gives life to the world: Evermore give us this bread, that he may live in us, and we in him; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Here are portions of the today’s readings...

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...

Romans 8:1-11
There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and to deal with sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, so that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit...

John 6: 27-40

Jesus said to them, ‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. But I said to you that you have seen me and yet do not believe. Everything that the Father gives me will come to me, and anyone who comes to me I will never drive away; for I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me.


God shaping us and remolding us, in Jeremiah. No condemnation if we are in Christ, according to Paul. Believe, this is the work of God, that Jesus is the Bread of Life, according to Jesus himself. We have these competing images in today’s readings. Differing metaphors for the intangible spiritual life.

This, then, is what we are looking at today. Doing things differently. God is calling Israel to be undone and redone. A strong, clear image everyone hearing could envision. They knew when one throws a pot imbalances happen. The Potter takes the unbalanced vessel, and shapes it again making it stable, usable, better.

Paul looks at the human condition differently. The Spirit is in you, or it isn’t. There is no middle ground here, no wiggle room. If you are in Christ, you are focused on the Spirit. If you are of the Flesh, you are not. This metaphor is different, because it focuses on what is in the pot, not the pot. A big difference here is that by the time Paul has come along, Jewish thought, especially a kid raised in Tarsus, had been influenced by Greek thought, where the body and spirit were seen as separate. One good. One bad. To Jeremiah, a distinction like that would probably have been drivel.

And then we come to Jesus.
Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal.’ Then they said to him, ‘What must we do to perform the works of God?’ Jesus answered them, ‘This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.’
Be careful not to read, This is the ONLY work of God. That is easily slipped in here. For those listeners on that day, the first step was for them to believe. As these words are still hanging in the air, they go on: So they said to him, ‘What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you? What work are you performing? Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, “He gave them bread from heaven to eat.”

Jesus, if he's anything like us, would need to breathe deep and count to ten. “Do you guys think that was from Moses, that Bread from Heaven? IT CAME FROM GOD!”

Then they ask for that bread, still missing the point. Jesus said to them, ‘I am the bread of life.” And hence we get the words. The whole bailiwick. The Potter shapes the Vessel, so that it can be filled with the One Who Was To Come. Blaise Pascal: “There is a God-shaped vacuum in the heart of each man which cannot be satisfied by any created thing but only by God the Creator, made known through Jesus Christ.”

In my Beetle, I have to be very careful what I plan to put in the trunk. There is only so much that can go in, as the opening is small, and not easily crammable. It would be hard to fit most things in, but it is set and not easily redone. We are not like that. God takes us, reshapes us with WHO WE ALREADY ARE and MAKES US READY TO HOLD CHRIST. We are the Vessels. He is the Precious Commodity. Don’t balk at being reshaped. It might not be easy, and it may hurt at times, a nip, a tuck, a pinch. But in the Master’s hands we are being shaped for what is to come. We are being prepared for the Unimaginable. Amen.

Sunday, March 31, 2019

Year C Lent 4 2019 Desperately Seeking You

Year C Lent 4, 31 March 2019
St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA
“Desperately Seeking You”

Collect: Gracious Father, whose blessed Son Jesus Christ came down from heaven to be the true bread which gives life to the world: Evermore give us this bread, that he may live in us, and we in him; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Luke 15:1-32
Now all the tax-collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. 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 neighbours, 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 people 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 neighbours, 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.’

"There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, 'Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.' So he divided his property between them. A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself he said, 'How many of my father's hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands."' So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then the son said to him, 'Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.' But the father said to his slaves, 'Quickly, bring out a robe--the best one--and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!' And they began to celebrate.

"Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. He replied, 'Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.' Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. But he answered his father, 'Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!' Then the father said to him, 'Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.'"

“Ode”  BY ARTHUR O'SHAUGHNESSY
We are the music makers,
    And we are the dreamers of dreams,
Thus begins one of my favorite poems. I use it at weddings and at funerals. But today I want to share the last two lines, because it helps us transition from last week’s sermon to today.
For each age is a dream that is dying,
    Or one that is coming to birth.
The coming of Jesus marked the end of an age. As well as the birth of a new one. The dream of a coming Messiah was dead, because the Messiah had come! But he was breaking rules, and doing things against the status quo. He was not there to justify to the righteous, like was expected. But to enable us to become the children of God, which changes EVERYTHING!

Last week we looked at one of the major hurdles of faith, when bad things happen,  theodicy for the theological term. And this week I want us to look at the flip side of that. I want us to view the seeking nature of the sought for God.

Our Gospel today is one of the best strings of stories in the Gospels. Each enlightens the next, and rich out of context, together they are a sumptuous feast of Grace.

I have a confession, the Gospel lesson today is only the introductory verses and the story of the Prodigal Son. I added to it the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin. In fact the third story should be the Lost Son. The word Prodigal comes from the Latin word for “lavish.” The son may have been lavish, but like the sheep and the coin, he was just as lost.

In setting the stage, Luke tells us the very reason for Jesus’ trilogy of parables.
Now all the tax-collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’
Jesus was being judged for the very reason he came, to seek and to save the lost. I pray that the work we do ruins our reputations with the “respectable” people, too. Too often the church has become a Chapel for the Comfortable, as opposed to a fueling station of Ambassadors of Grace. So Jesus tells us these stories.

The Lost Sheep. Sheep are not the brightest of critters, and domestication dumbs them down even more. The sheep wandered off. There is a reason we need sheepdogs and shepherds. Sheep follow their noses, and go from clump to clump to clump. Sometimes they do this and do not even notice that they are no longer with their flock. Sometimes in their wandering they fall down in pits or gullies. And that necessitates someone going to seek them out. They need a shepherd. That is where we get the word pastor, someone to shepherd God’s sheep. I trust you are a step above sheeple.

But think about it. If we are the sheep, and God is the Shepherd, then what fault does the sheep have in getting lost? Does the shepherd even ask that question? No. The shepherd only wants the sheep home safe and sound. How often do we concern ourselves in how someone “got lost?” That was Bob being Bob, or Sue being Sue. But the shepherd knows that sheep get lost, and their only concern is saving the sheep.

Then we have the Lost Coin. One of ten. The Greek word used is not coin, but rather drachma, a day’s wage. This is not a gold coin that is being sought, it is a meager, humble, working class coin. In our luxury, we sometimes walk past a penny on the ground. Why bother?

Why does the woman search and clean till the coin us found? It is of value, great value to her. Someone gave a day of their life to earn that coin, and she was not resting till it was found. Unlike the sheep, the coin did not wander off. It did not follow its nose. It has no free will or ability. It was lost. It found itself lost. It had no way to get out of its predicament. But it was of value by the nature of what it was. It was worth finding. If we are the coin, and God is the woman, what does that say? We are of worth. We are of value. We are worth finding BECAUSE OF OUR INHERENT VALUE.

Think of what Jesus is saying in this context. When we are stupid, and do things we probably should not, we are still worth the trouble. When we get into situations through no fault of our own, we are still worth the trouble. And then we get to the Prodigal, the Lavish but still lost, Son. Here we find a different situation, and Jesus really pushes the point with this one.

The Prodigal could not have been more upsetting to the cultural norms of his day. He does everything wrong he could do to upset the beloved patriarchal approach to his listeners.

To start the offense, the son asks for his half of the inheritance BEFORE the father dies. What is the son saying? We have no relationship. You are nothing to me but a means to an end. I wish you were dead so I could get the heck out of here. Think of how the Father hears these words. The Father has such love for the Son, that even though it breaks his heart and divides his estate, he gives it to the Son. He goes off to a foreign land, and squanders it. Loose living and high times takes every penny, and when all is gone he finds himself far from home in a land famished and with no one to turn to. Jesus was a masterful storyteller. And here we see him at his best.  What does the Prodigal, the lavish one, turn to to feed himself? No Jewish boy could fall any lower in his kinsmen’s eyes than to feed pigs. Pigs were not kosher. You do not touch a pig, much less feed them. And then look, he had fallen so far he was JEALOUS of a pig! He wanted their pods, their slop, he was so hungry. This is HUGE! And then he figures it out.
          ♪♪ “Don’t it always seem to go, you don’t know what you’ve got till its gone…”♪♪
He could go home. At least at his Father’s house, his generous, lovely, naive, loving Father’s house he could be a servant. So he sets out. He heads home. All the way there he practices the speech. "Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands." And he pauses when he sees the house afar off.

And what is it he sees? A trail of dust. A running man. Is it someone come to chase him away? Is it someone to send him packing. It is what he deserved, in a fair and just world. He wished his Father dead, and he is probably dead to his Father. But then coming closer we see something else. It is not a servant with stick in hand, it is the Father with tears in his eyes thanking God. If you cannot image this, stop right now.

The image of the Return of the Lost Son being embraced by a loving, forgiving Father is The Epitome of what Jesus is about, here we see him at his height of making an approachable metaphor that anyone can understand, and yet take books by scholars to begin to unpack. But being human, we do not need to be scholars to understand. We know UNCONDITIONAL LOVE when we see it.

In that day and age, it was beneath the Father’s decorum to hurry anywhere. He was a wealthy landowner and he need not rush for anyone. And yet, he ran. This is the most poignant story of Grace in Scripture until Jesus hangs on the Cross. Jesus, who we call God the Son, is saying THIS is the very nature of God. Even while we are yet Sinners, God DESPERATELY wants us to come home. No questions asked. No caveats or exceptions. It did no good for the Father to chase after the Son like the Shepherd hunted after the Sheep, or the Woman sought for the Coin. The Son chose to leave. The Son had to turn and come home. He had Free Will. He had to see for himself that what he had rejected was truly what he wanted. Dorothy has to realize there is no place like home, and click her heels. The Prodigal had to realize better a servant in the Father’s house, than Lost and Alone far from home.

Now remember the context, the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’ This is where he adds the kicker. The Other Son. The Son who always did “the right thing” and could not resent it more learns that his good for nothing brother has come home. Not only that, he has been given THE BEST ROBE, THE GOLD RING, AND HAS A FEAST WITH THE FATTED CALF! I can hear it now, “THIS IS NOT FAIR!”

We say we want Justice and Mercy. No we don’t. Not really. We want Grace. Justice is getting what one deserves. Mercy is getting off easy but still being held in account for our actions and decisions. Grace is a gift, a free gift, with no strings attached. And Grace is Amazing.

The Father invites the Good Son to see what Grace looks like. Lost and now Found, Dead and now Alive. The Good Son says clearly he did what he did out of obligation, he did what he did out of loyalty, maybe. He did not do it joyfully. He did not do it out of love. “I worked like a slave…” He was so close to love and grace and did not know it, he did not even see it. Everything his Father had was to be his. He was set to receive all, his brother had gotten his share. And he could not see that. The more he did for his Father, the greater would be his reward. Especially when he did it in love. He was so caught up in doing right, he had somehow missed the boat on being loved.

If you have never read Henri Nouwen’s book The Return of the Prodigal  I cannot recommend it enough. We are all the Father, the Prodigal, and the Good Son. When we are lost, we are encouraged to come home, like the Prodigal. When we are judgmental and hypocritical, we are invited to not just see things differently but to be transformed, as was the “Good” Son. And with all we meet, may we run with Grace to embrace and welcome people home like the Father. We have been blessed to be a blessing. We receive Grace to freely give it away.

These three stories model for us a Transforming Vision of the World. May we be so ridiculous to run like the Father, to sweep and seek like the woman, to go out with desperate intent like the Shepherd. And when we receive Grace, we weep with the tears of grateful hearts.

Jesus came to make the Blind to See, the Lame to Walk, and the Dead to Rise. If that is not Revolutionary, I do not know what is.
We, in the ages lying,
    In the buried past of the earth,
Built Nineveh with our sighing,
    And Babel itself in our mirth;
And o'erthrew them with prophesying
    To the old of the new world's worth;
For each age is a dream that is dying,
    Or one that is coming to birth. Amen.

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Year C Lent 3 WED 2019 Gamechanging

Year C Lent 3 WEDNESDAY, 28 March 2019
St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA
“Gamechanging”

John 8:12-20
Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, ‘I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.’ Then the Pharisees said to him, ‘You are testifying on your own behalf; your testimony is not valid.’ Jesus answered, ‘Even if I testify on my own behalf, my testimony is valid because I know where I have come from and where I am going, but you do not know where I come from or where I am going. You judge by human standards; I judge no one. Yet even if I do judge, my judgement is valid; for it is not I alone who judge, but I and the Father who sent me. In your law it is written that the testimony of two witnesses is valid. I testify on my own behalf, and the Father who sent me testifies on my behalf.’ Then they said to him, ‘Where is your Father?’ Jesus answered, ‘You know neither me nor my Father. If you knew me, you would know my Father also.’ He spoke these words while he was teaching in the treasury of the temple, but no one arrested him, because his hour had not yet come.

When I was younger and worked at Camp, one of our favorite evening programs was called Kangaroo Court. Maybe you did it at a camp you attended. The counselors were usually in on it. And they were brought before the “Judge” on trumped up charges (all in the name of fun), and as soon as the accusation is made, the “Judge” usually responds, “Guilty as Sin!” And then they have to be reminded that there needs to be a trial before the punishment, but it is all part of an elaborate mockery of Justice. Much like the Queen of Hearts in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, the “Off with his head!” rings out before its appropriate time, if there ever is one.

Jesus confronts the ones who had already made up their minds in another mockery of justice, and a mockery of faith in God. No matter what “proof” Jesus presented, it was going to be dismissed. The first tactic used in political assassinations is to dismiss the messenger if one cannot dismiss or discount the message. And that is just what people do.
Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, ‘I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.’ Then the Pharisees said to him, ‘You are testifying on your own behalf; your testimony is not valid.’ Jesus answered, ‘Even if I testify on my own behalf, my testimony is valid because I know where I have come from and where I am going, but you do not know where I come from or where I am going. You judge by human standards; I judge no one.”
Jesus goes on that he does not need to judge, but if anyone could he could. He knows the Father is on his side. It is not bragging if it's true, like I said at Lula’s funeral. Jesus knew the truth, and it set him free from their judgment.

My grandmother always said, “You cannot argue stupid. Don’t waste your breath.” Jesus knew when to quit. These “religious leaders” did not lead much; they majored on the minor, and were closer to religious prosecutors than actual leaders.

It would be easy to get negative, but Jesus here says something I do not want to miss. He declares he himself is the Light of the World. There will be a lot who want him to hide it under a bushel basket, but no, he is going to let it shine. And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it. There are many who will take potshots and be dismissive. And when they do, we MUST hold onto the light.

Think about going into a deep, dark cave, so deep that light cannot reach there, and finding a gathering who do not believe your crazy talk about the light. They think you are crazy. They soon will attack you to shut up the talk that makes them so uncomfortable. If what you say is true, then they are wrong, and people hate to be wrong. If what you say is true, then they have to change everything about who they are and how they live.

Eugene Peterson in his book The Divine Conspiracy tells the story of his family’s conversation in rural Tennessee discussing if they should bring in the “electricity” that is coming down their road as part of the Tennessee Valley Authority. They were not sure, and the family, father, mother, uncles and aunts, talked long and hard about. Looking back it sounds ridiculous. But before it came, it was dangerous, frightening, and potentially upsetting to EVERYTHING. And it was, THANKS BE TO GOD. Jesus is a lot like that. Light drives out our darkness, THANKS BE TO GOD. Amen.

Sunday, March 24, 2019

Year C Lent 3 2019 The Gardener Knows Best

Year C Lent 3, 24 March 2019
St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA
“The Gardener Knows Best”


Collect: Almighty God, you know that we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves: Keep us both outwardly in our bodies and inwardly in our souls, that we may be defended from all adversities which may happen to the body, and from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Luke 13:1-9

At that very time there were some present who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. He asked them, "Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them--do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did."


Then he told this parable: "A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, 'See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?' He replied, 'Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.'"

Why do bad things happen? Why do they, really? If God is all-powerful, then why does God allow suffering and misery? Does it mean that God is not all-powerful, as Rabbi Kushner argues? (In Why Do Bad Things Happen to Good People?) Or is it that God is not all-good? Archibald MacLeish in his Pulitzer Prize winning play J.B. said, “If God is God, he is not good. If God is good, he is not God.” Or is it something else entirely? These are hard and age-old questions.

From our earliest days as humans, we think that God works like we do, and the tit-for-tat, transactional lives we have on this plain of existence is too often how we perceive the workings of God. Some of the oldest portions of our Scriptures according to scholars come from the Book of Job. There a righteous man is assaulted by the enemy (of himself and God) and made to suffer. A string of calamities happen. He loses his flocks, his children, everything, and all he had was his wife who instructed him to “Curse God and die.” And then his so-called “friends” come asking, “So what did you do to deserve this?”

The assumption always seem to be that we cause our fate. That’s what Job’s friends assumed, and it is what the ones who came to Jesus assumed as well. Jesus cites two calamities and brings a spotlight on them.

At that very time there were some present who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. He asked them, "Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them--do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did."
Pilate, the Roman prefect, was notorious for cruelty. Some event took place where some Galileans had made sacrifices, and they were killed and their blood was mingled with the offerings they had made. Jesus asked, were these any worse than their neighbors? Were they somehow deserving of this, or to blame? He then brings up another recent incident. A tower fell in Jerusalem, killing 18. Were they to blame for this accident? Of course not.

Bad things happen, with intent sometimes like with Pilate. And bad things happen just because, like with the falling tower. To both Jesus gives a phrase, “repent, or you will perish as they did.” Now this is tricky, because it sounds causative. If you do not do this, then this will happen. This bad thing will be the outcome. It may sound like Jesus is saying that. It can be confusing. However, when we look at the whole narrative, and where Jesus goes next it offers us a different way to read it.

Jesus immediately tells them a story of a fig tree. Now what is it we expect of a fig tree? [Wait for a response.] Figs, of course. And in the story we see something not doing what it is meant to do. A fig tree not producing figs is pretty worthless. And here we are given two competing views. What does one do with worthless things?

The man who planted the fig tree says this: “For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?”

This makes total sense. Why waste time and energy on this worthless fig tree. So often I think this is how people see God. They seem to think that God is ready to write most of us off, ready to chop us down and chuck us on the trash heap (Gehenna, the word we translate as hell in the Gospels literally was the trash heap of Jerusalem, by the way.) This thinking is what the people who came to Jesus must have thought. It is what Job’s wife and friends thought. Maybe it is what you think or have thought along the way.

But then we are given the image of the Gardener, the one who loves the tree, and is not ready to chop it down. “Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.” When we look at the entirety of the teachings of Jesus, I think this is what he is saying. The Gardener, the one who lovingly cares for and fertilizes the fig tree, is actually a better image of the nature of God.

And here is something to ponder. The Gardener puts manure on the tree. Manure happens. No one wants it. No one seeks it out. Manure happens. But from that, new growth can happen. The manure is what brings us to another place. For our muscles to work, we must work them. We fight gravity from the moment we are born. Without it our muscles wither and die. Astronauts spending lengthy time on the space station have to drastically up their exercise or when they come home they will be as weak as babies. They no longer fight gravity just to exist. We are designed to flourish in an adversarial atmosphere!

When bad things happen, we do not wish them, want them, nor do we seek them out. But they DO and WILL come. Always. And we have a response, we can sit on the ash heap, curse God, and die. Or, we can see the things as an opportunity for growth. A line from the Batman movie, “Master Wayne, why do we fall down? To learn to pick ourselves back up.”

And that is how I have to read the enigmatic statement of Jesus, “Repent, or perish like they did.” Repent means to change direction, to turn around. It ALSO means to CHANGE OUR MINDS. (Metanoia) And that is what I hear Jesus saying to those who thought God was out to smite folks. “You all need to repent, or you will continue to suffer under this delusion like those who are perishing in those thoughts. God is not like that…” And that is where he tells the fig tree story.

We perish in unhealthy views of God. We perish when we sell God short, and believe God to be other than Grace-filled, grace-ful, and loving of us all. God wants to give us another chance. God wants to care for us, fertilize us, and give us time to grow. We think of God too often to be like the Owner. But God, Jesus is telling us is really like the Gardener. And the Gardener KNOWS BEST!

What a beautiful thought. What a beautiful God. God is NOT SMITING US! God does not want that.

You have a choice in how you see things. You have a choice in how you respond. You cannot control what life deals you. But your response to that is what shapes your faith, and the more you work those faith muscles the more ready you will be when life hands you a really bad hand.

I must add the caveat to my sermon today. Bad things, horrible things, unspeakable things happen. They hurt, and some things take a lifetime to recover from. I know this. God knows this. One of the great things of being a Christian is that we have a God who so loves us, that he chose to come and be one of us. To breathe, to laugh, to hurt, to cry, and even to die. He knows the human condition. Ecce homo. Behold, the Son of Man. He is not a stranger to what we go through. When Lazarus died, John’s Gospel says, “Jesus cried.” [11:35] When he approached Jerusalem in Luke’s Gospel, he wept. [19:41] When we suffer, God still weeps.

A quote I use a lot in my discernment work with the Diocese comes from writer Frederick Buechner. “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” I know it has been true for me, and for so many passionate Christ followers I have met on my journey, where my deepest woundedness is can be a source of hope and grace for others. That deep gladness that Buechner speaks of is exactly that. My strongest joy, my deep gladness comes from my deepest woundedness. When I was a child, my father passed. It has made so much of my life intent on protecting and caring for the emotional and spiritual welfare for children. The Papa Bear comes out. I want happy, joy-filled, care-free children. They are my deep gladness, and it is so often a great need of the world. In my faith, my woundedness was transformed, utilized, and transforming for others. God is the Gardener who tilled that soil, broke up the clumps deep down in my soul, and breathed life into that barrenness. I repented. I changed my mind and my ways. I no longer perish in the pain and confusion of “Why me?”

God can take that manure that covers us in our living and breathing, and can cleanse us of it and use it to God’s honor and glory. In the economy of our faith, nothing is futile, pointless, or without redemption, even our heartaches and heartbreaks. In our weakness, he is strong. In our weakness, he is mighty to save. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Year C Lent 1 WED 2019 Unforgetting

Year C Lent 1, 13 March 2019
St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA 

“Unforgetting” 

Collect: Almighty God, whose blessed Son was led by the Spirit to be tempted by Satan: Come quickly to help us who are assaulted by many temptations; and, as you know the weaknesses of each of us, let each one find you mighty to save; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen. 

John 3:1-15

1Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. 2He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” 3Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” 4Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother's womb and be born?” 5Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ 8The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” 9Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” 10Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? 11“Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. 12If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

The Sacraments 
Q. What are the sacraments? 
A. The sacraments are outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual grace, given by Christ as sure and certain means by which we receive that grace.

One of the great rubs of the faith is that balancing act, or juxtaposition even, of the spiritual and the physical. The Outward and the Inward. The metaphorical/spiritual and the literal/biological. Our Sacraments are just that, physical metaphors. Baptism. Eucharist. Weddings. Orders. Confession. Unction.

Often when people dismiss the faith we have it is over taking the spiritual or metaphorical literally (and hence physically), and what is is literal metaphorically. I heard a story this week of someone who is openly racist and hate-filled and attends church weekly, where such attitudes and actions are condemned, not condoned. But still they come. They openly and unabashedly express these non-Christlike views far too often. At what point I wonder will they decide that these notorious sins will cross and line, and like the prayer book says, ask them not to come? I cannot imagine ever doing that to anyone, but at the same time I do not have someone spewing hate at visitors and members alike.

The opposite can also be true. I have seen deeply spiritual and loving people who would never set foot in a church, or synagogue, or mosque.

When Nicodemus came to talk with Jesus, Jesus was surprised that a spiritual leader did not have the simplest grasp on how God works.
What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.
We give words to the ephemeral, and for some this is a problem. We need handles for the uncontainable, and that is where people have problems. Jesus said, “born from above.” Nicodemus talked about re-entering the womb. I hope he was trying to be funny. Obviously, Jesus did not think this was a joking manner, and did not trivialize it by going literal or funny. 

We gather together regularly to be reminded. We join with the story. Last night in my Lenten class I used the word ANAMNESIS for the section of the Eucharistic prayer. Today in Prayer A (for Lent) you will hear these words:
Holy and gracious Father: In your infinite love you made us for yourself, and, when we had fallen into sin and become subject to evil and death…
After class Beth reminded me that ANAMNESIS which I translated as Remembrance has a more beautiful meaning. Literally it means the Un-Forgetting. Jesus helped Nicodemus “unforget” what this is all about, the hazards of metaphor, and invited him to something better. “whoever believes in the [Son of Man] may have eternal life.” Amen

Sunday, March 10, 2019

Year C Lent 1, 2019 An Opportune Time

Year C Lent 1, 10 March 2019
St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland VA
“An Opportune Time”


Collect:
Almighty God, whose blessed Son was led by the Spirit to be tempted by Satan: Come quickly to help us who are assaulted by many temptations; and, as you know the weaknesses of each of us, let each one find you mighty to save; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen. Romans 10:8b-13 "The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart" (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); because if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved. The scripture says, "No one who believes in him will be put to shame." For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. For, "Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved."

Luke 4:1-13 After his baptism, Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. The devil said to him, "If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread." Jesus answered him, "It is written,

'One does not live by bread alone.'" Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, "To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours." Jesus answered him, "It is written, 'Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.'" Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, "If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, 'He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,' and 'On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.'" Jesus answered him, "It is said, 'Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'" When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.


Looking at today’s readings, a verse sprang to mind.
1 Peter 5:8 Discipline yourselves, keep vigilant. Like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour.

In fact, in movie portrayals of the Temptation of Jesus, lions are often used to represent Satan, dangerous, hungry, devouring. It was a wilderness, and someone weakened from fasting for so long would make an easy target for a wild beast.

In practical matters, it is always good advice to avoid decisions when one is under the influence. The influence of our emotions, that is. I learned this in graduate school when I did a Deep Dive to learn about the 12-Step Process while working with the Alcoholics Anonymous group at my church at the time. I learned a great acronym that has stayed with me. H.A.L.T. Halt. Never make a decision, HALT yourself in the process when you are Hungry, Angry, Lonely, or Tired. I have used that in my team trainings and pilgrimage orientations since then. It is good advice. Before you snap, say something you regret, make a decision you’ll have to live with, HALT. Know yourself and stop it. And I think that is what Jesus models for us here.

So let us set the stage. Jesus prepared himself for his ministry by turning to prayer. He went up from the Jordan River where we see him at his baptism in the previous chapter: [Luke 3]
21 Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, 22 and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” \
Think about it. We all learn in layers, and here at the beginning of his ministry he receives a clear call to his vocation. He is “the Son, the Beloved.” Now Luke jumps over at this point and goes in depth on the lineage of Jesus. We see that the Son thing is something other than parentage. This is a Messianic Declaration. This is a Spiritual thing. Luke shares that “he was the son (as was thought) of Joseph…” [Luke 3:23]

But if any human mind tried to wrap itself around the idea that oneself is THE ONE, it would take some time to process. Did he know already, and it was affirmed? Did he not? I don’t know. No one can. But the model here is important. We are about spiritual work, no matter what we do in the name of Christ. The clinic downstairs opens in prayer on Wednesdays. The Vestry just got together to pray and lift up the coming year. As things get busier and busier around here I find I have to set more and more time aside to pray. There is an old phrase that goes: “I have so much to do that I shall spend the first three hours in prayer.” That is attributed to Martin Luther, and it rings true.

If Jesus had to get away to pray, certainly we must, too.

I would urge you to have a moment, daily at least, to stop and pray. Daily Devotions for Families is on page 136-140 in the Book of Common Prayer is a GREAT place to start. link The Daily Offices are even better. There are wonderful apps and websites that teens or anybody can use if that is more your thing. Forward Day By Day is another resource. Grab one. We can easily and happily get more. If nothing else, pray the Lord’s Prayer and tell God what is on your heart. Just talk. And then take time to listen. Don’t make the conversation one way. That does not work in any relationship.

It is not too late to take on a new discipline for Lent. God does not have a starting line that you can miss.

So back to Jesus, he goes alone into this area between the Dead Sea and Jerusalem about 30 miles from each other, and hunkers down with God. At the end of this time, 40 days are mentioned, he is tempted. The temptations are choices he could make. They are all the easy route. The easy route to physical relief. The easy route to power. The easy route to being known.

Now the fascinating thing about our interactions that we witness is that we have Jesus and Satan quoting Scripture back and forth. It just goes to show, you may know the Bible, but you have to live it, or it is moot. Sun Tzu in the Art of War: “If you know your enemy and know yourself, and you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.”

So here we see the devil taking the easy route, hitting Jesus at his weakest, his most vulnerable.
The devil said to him, "If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread." Jesus answered him, "It is written, 'One does not live by bread alone.'"
A way to a man’s heart might be through his belly, but here we see Jesus deny himself. His fast was about focusing on what he holds most dear. Like much of what we do, it was an Outward Sign of an Inward Grace. It should be the same when we fast. What is it we choose to embrace? Jesus clings to God. Even famished he knew that he need not succumb to this.
Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, "To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours." Jesus answered him, "It is written, 'Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.'"
The next temptation was to Jesus’ identity. It was a blow to his sense of self to not claim all the power at his command. But in this self-limiting he could truly show us what God was like AND that we could be like that, too. We can choose love over hate; we can choose others over self; and, we can choose servanthood over pride.
Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, "If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, 'He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,' and 'On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.'" Jesus answered him, "It is said, 'Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'"
And the final temptation is the most incipient. We all have needs of the flesh; we have to eat, sleep, and take care of our bodies. We all have identity needs; we care about our loves as we must care for ourselves. Having a healthy sense of self is important, but having an appropriate sense of self is absolute. This cheap magic trick would have all Jerusalem flock to him, but for what? Satan says, “If you are the Son of God…” He is pushing either Jesus’ doubt, or daring him to play Satan’s games. Jesus recognized and declared he knew who he was. In this final temptation, Jesus reminds Satan who is really in control. He reframes the situation and basically shows that Satan, in the end, has no power over him. “Do not put the Lord, your God, to the test.” There is no temptation to Satan’s supposed power because he already has the power, the True power that can only come from God.

A few weeks ago, the day of Youth Sunday, most of you did not hear my sermon at the 8 o’clock Eucharist where I reminded those there that in any situation God has your back. It was true for Jesus. It is true for you.

On Friday, someone offered me something I had chosen to give up for Lent. It was tempting. It was attractive, and the person was very encouraging. I had to stop, HALT, and make a choice. What is it that I hold most dear? This moment which would be nice, or to keep my commitment I made for this time. Thankfully I chose to keep my commitment. It is what I treasured more.

When temptation comes and rears its ugly head, remember that. Take the bigger picture point of view. Think on what you hold most dear. Remember who you are and whose you are. Recognize a temptation for what it is, and remember you have the ability to choose something else, something better. You can choose to not accept to be tempted. When Satan is looking for an opportune time to tempt you, like he did with Jesus, may we see it as OUR opportune time to choose to love God all the more. Amen.