Monday, January 25, 2021

Year B 3rd Epiphany 2021 Dropping My Nets

 Year B 3rd Sunday after Epiphany, 24 January 2021

Video Service from St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA

“Dropping My Nets”

Collect: Give us grace, O Lord, to answer readily the call of our Savior Jesus Christ and proclaim to all people the Good News of his salvation, that we and the whole world may perceive the glory of his marvelous works; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Mark 1:14-20

After John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” 

As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” And immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.

Our collect for this week, which you have not heard yet because we are doing Morning Prayers rather than a Eucharist service, begins this way: 

Give us grace, O Lord, to answer readily the call of our Savior Jesus Christ and proclaim to all people the Good News of his salvation…

Give us Grace to answer readily

Give us Grace to answer readily.

Even in our response we are dependent on God. Letting go is hard. We are tied to what we let go of, so often. It is not tangible objects, necessarily. It is so often Identity. We are called to let go our veneer of who we are so that we can truly find who we are.

Yes, we are called to let go of our false self to find our true self in Christ. We are invited to find who we really are.

These boys, these supposed fisherman, ensnared by societal and familial expectations had planned to be at these nets all their lives. It is the family business. I bet Zebedee was quite the character, and standing up to him, or rather walking away from him could not have been an easy thing. 

I have spoke about this before, but change can and does happen. But it usually only happens when certain things take place.

Your Dissatisfaction (D) with what is


Your Vision (V) for what could be 


Those First Steps (F) to that Change


Than any Resistance to Change

D x V x F > R

Once we reach that tipping point change can happen. And that is what Jesus offered.

I wonder what was going through Andrew and Simon and James and John’s minds that morning? Were they grumbling? They were not doing the fun thing of fishing out on the water. They were on the shore, doing the necessary grudge work to enable the fun to come.

I trust they knew Jesus, and had heard him. Maybe they were at his baptism? But something gave them the Vision to IMMEDIATELY follow him. And Jesus gave them the first steps. Drop your nets, and follow me. 

Drop your nets, and follow me.

They left their nets. 

When he called them, they left their nets.

What are our nets?

What are the things that we busy ourselves with, fill our days with, focus our energy, attention, and resources to? Even more, what are our nets when Jesus is calling?

I saw a bumper sticker one time, meant in jest. “Look BUSY. Jesus is coming.” Now, that is what we are talking about today. But the opposite of that bumper sticker.

What is the BUSY work that we provide our hands and our minds to make ourselves feel better? What are our nets?

It might be entertainment. It might be our work. It might be our hobbies. It might be our club or organization. It might be a relationship, or relationships.

Whatever it might be, it is our net. And Jesus calls us away.

This week most of us watched the Inauguration. The tone that was set from the beginning was one of healing, and unity. It did not ignore the trauma of the pandemic, far from it. President Biden actually paused and prayed in silence for the 2 million lost souls.

I was deeply moved many times, but when I cried it was at a singular point. It was when Garth Brooks sang Amazing Grace. And after the cynicism and ugliness of recents years, nay days, on the steps where an insurgency was attempted mere weeks ago, I saw leaders of this nation, red and blue, singing of the Grace of God calling each and every one of us to our better selves, the better angels of our characters. For a brief moment they let go of their Red or Blue identities and remembered who they were in the Grace of God, united.

Friends, in the days to come, may we hear that call as well. We are wretches saved by Grace, each and every one. We are called to that identity, sinners saved by Grace. And Jesus calls us still.

“Come and follow me.” 

But Jesus, we don’t know where you are going!

“Come and follow me.” 

But Jesus, this net is so important.

“Come and follow me.” 

But Jesus, I am not worthy.

“Come and follow me.” 

But Jesus, I do not have all the details from you yet.

“Come and follow me.” 

But Jesus, I don’t want to.

“Come and follow me.” 

But Jesus, can’t somebody else do it?

“Come and follow me.” 

Friends, God has heard all the excuses that have been given, could have been given. And yet, still Jesus calls, “Come and follow me.”

And immediately we…

And immediately I… 

The end of that sentence is up to you. It is up to me. 

Give us grace, O Lord, to answer readily the call of our Savior Jesus Christ… Amen.

Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Year B 2nd Epiphany WED 2021 Shine

 Year B 2nd Sunday After Epiphany WEDNESDAY, 20 January 2021

Video Service from St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA


Collect: Almighty God, whose Son our Savior Jesus Christ is the light of the world: Grant that your people, illumined by your Word and Sacraments, may shine with the radiance of Christ's glory, that he may be known, worshipped, and obeyed to the ends of the earth; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Ephesians 5:1-14 

Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. But fornication and impurity of any kind, or greed, must not even be mentioned among you, as is proper among saints. Entirely out of place is obscene, silly, and vulgar talk; but instead, let there be thanksgiving. Be sure of this, that no fornicator or impure person, or one who is greedy (that is, an idolater), has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes on those who are disobedient. Therefore do not be associated with them. For once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light. Live as children of light-- for the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true. Try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord. Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. For it is shameful even to mention what such people do secretly; but everything exposed by the light becomes visible, for everything that becomes visible is light. Therefore it says, "Sleeper, awake! Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.”

I was speaking with the Vestry on Monday, and I talked about how I would be doubling down on emphasizing our commitment and devotion to Jesus. Our allegiance to the Kingdom of God must be greater than any worldly commitments. On this day of all days, I have to emphasize this.

When Paul was writing the Ephesians, we are looking at a time of petty and corrupt officials, folks who focused on the minors or the abhorrent. He urged the Church in Ephasus to be radically different from those in the culture surrounding them. We do not stoop to their level. We do not acknowledge these if they are in our midst. 

This is hard. We have to be beyond good. Blameless. Pure. Set Apart. 

He speaks of being set out in the light so that we can be pure.

Think of bones, sitting in the desert sun. The light, so strong, so blinding, strips all that is not pure away. 

Children of the Light, that is our calling. 

A phrase I used with the Vestry is that we need to share light, not heat. That is one of the rules of thumb I attempt to use personally when I share things, either in a sermon or online. Now we cannot control how people hear what we say, or receive what we write, but we still need to be as “enlightening” as we possibly can.

Paul calls us to rid ourselves of “obscene, silly, and vulgar talk.” Now I do not hear him speaking to playful banter or joking with friends, but taking it to the vulgar is never appropriate. We all know of examples where this was done, and how we should dismiss these folks and walk away. What should we do?

“Let there be thanksgiving,” Paul tells us. Our speech should be appreciative. We can find the good. We can share the positive. This is not being Pollyanna, but rather a life approach. We need not dwell in the sewer. We need to stoop to being hostile or vane. We do not have to match tit-for-tat. Christ Jesus came for us to have another way. That is our Good News. 

On this day of all days, I thank God that I can be a Child of the Light, not to enlighten myself, but to share what I have found and make the world a better place. If we all did that, what a world it could be. Amen

Monday, January 18, 2021

Year B 2nd Epiphany 2021 Eternal Truths in a Self-Absorbed Times

 Year B 2nd Sunday of Epiphany, 17 January 2021

Video Service from St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA

“Eternal Truths in a Self-Absorbed Time”

Collect: Almighty God, whose Son our Savior Jesus Christ is the light of the world: Grant that your people, illumined by your Word and Sacraments, may shine with the radiance of Christ's glory, that he may be known, worshipped, and obeyed to the ends of the earth; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

John 1:43-51

Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.” Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.” When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said of him, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” Nathanael asked him, “Where did you get to know me?” Jesus answered, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” Nathanael replied, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” Jesus answered, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.” And he said to him, “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”

Good morning, friends. I so appreciate you, and I treasure that I get to serve as the Rector of St. James the Less. Even in these days, especially in these days, we need each other all the more.

Since last March, our world has turned upside down. And yet, we are still here. We are entering into a week that will test the mettle of our character, both as a nation as each of us individually. Never would I, could I, have imagined what took place on January 6th at the Capitol. 

Harrison had recorded his sermon before the events on the 6th, which is why we did not hear him allude to it in his message. I was able to add two prayers for our nation, though. Because of that I wanted to peel back the cover on how things happen now. In my 30 years of ministry, there have been many a night when I had to rewrite a sermon on a Saturday night because of what transpired that day. Now, we are preaching to empty rooms days before the sermon is delivered to you. So it takes days to prepare the sermon, 10 minutes to give it, 20 if you are Harrison... 

(Love you, Harrison.)

...10 minutes to preach it, a day to edit, a half day to upload. The added steps take significant time and effort to make it happen. Think back to March when I was holding up shaky hymn sheets compared to where we are now. And this will be where we are for the coming months. 

For most of us, that is so hard to hear. We are tired of this. We want to get back in the church. We want to get back together. We want to shake hands and hug necks. When I think of Sundays past, my favorite parts were the Greeting Line after service, and even more, serving each of you in the Eucharist. Taken, blessed, broken, and given. That is how we looked at the bread, the host. But it could also be a description of us. I would even say that it should be a description of us. 

We are a privileged lot. Many of us have comfortable lives, and have been relatively protected over the last few months. We have been Taken from the hardships, the true hardships, that so many of our brothers and sisters have faced. We have been Blessed. We have the freedom and opportunity to still worship, even though apart, jointly. We interact in the chat or the comments. We connect in classes and online coffee hours. We call, send cards, share memes and jokes, to make the days go by easier. 

But looking ahead, these are the hard days. These are the days when we are done, or feel like we are. A vaccine has miraculously emerged in mere months. Wow! But even so, we need to decide to continue on doing the hard work and remaining apart for the safety of the most vulnerable. We are being Broken, broken of the need to get our own way, broken of the privilege of demands, broken from the desire to ignore the hard truths that this virus a little over a year old has killed 2 million people worldwide, just shy of 400,000 in the USA alone. They say, “Ignorance is Bliss.” We are being broken of the privilege of remaining Ignorant.

But like the bread, we are finally Given. I believe that if nothing else, these last months have taught us how much we need Church. Stephanie, my wife, was talking to me about this. She was so right, and I hope she will write this up as an article. She gets all the credit. But we miss Church, and will not take it for granted ever again. We miss each other. We miss what we are about. I believe that coming out of this time of being Taken, Blessed, and Broken, we will see a season of being Given. I predict that we will see a resurgence and renaissance of sharing and incarnating the Good News of Jesus Christ! The world needs Good News now as much as any time in human history.

In today’s Gospel reading, I eventually needed to get back to the Gospel reading, we see Nathaniel in his cynicism. When his brother says he has found the promised Messiah, Nathaniel expresses his doubts. When Nathaniel hears Jesus is from Nazareth, we hear his true thoughts. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”

I love his brother’s response. I think that we can shift and use this very often in the emerging world post-pandemic. “Come and see.” Nathaniel was taken from where he was, blessed by his brother, broken of his old way of seeing, and given out as a disciple and apostle of his Lord Jesus Christ. 

Friends, do not see these days as a punishment, but rather a crucible. The Church will be here to proclaim Truth and Love, and to stand in stark opposition to any who say otherwise. Pilate asked, “What is Truth?” Jesus was silent in his trial, but had previously taught his followers that he was the Truth. (“I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.” John 14:6)And more so, “The fool says in their heart, ‘There is no God.’” (Psalm 10:4) But we know that “God is love” (I John 4:8) Truth and Love. That is the business we need to be about.

Friends, I do not know what today will bring. And I do not know what will transpire between when I record this and when it airs on Sunday. Or between now for me, and when you hear it. But these eternal truths are the same today, tomorrow, and always.

We are called to bring light, not heat to the world. The world has enough heat with all that is transpiring. We are called to bring out the God-flavors, not to leave a sour taste in peoples’ mouths. We are called to share and live in Truth, for Truth will set us free. We are called to Love, for they will know we are Christians BY OUR LOVE. Nothing else. 

Love, Peace, and Grace be yours! And get ready to be Given, to the Glory of God! Amen


Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Year B 1st Epiphany WED 2021 Called to Faith

Year B 1st Epiphany WEDNESDAY, 13 January 2021
Video Service from St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA
“Called to Faith”

Collect: Father in heaven, who at the baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan proclaimed him your beloved Son and anointed him with the Holy Spirit: Grant that all who are baptized into his Name may keep the covenant they have made, and boldly confess him as Lord and Savior; who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.

Luke 10:1-17
After this the Lord appointed seventy others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go. He said to them, "The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest. Go on your way. See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves. Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road. Whatever house you enter, first say, 'Peace to this house!' And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you. Remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide, for the laborer deserves to be paid. Do not move about from house to house. Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; cure the sick who are there, and say to them, 'The kingdom of God has come near to you.' But whenever you enter a town and they do not welcome you, go out into its streets and say, 'Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet, we wipe off in protest against you. Yet know this: the kingdom of God has come near.' I tell you, on that day it will be more tolerable for Sodom than for that town. "Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the deeds of power done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago, sitting in sackcloth and ashes. But at the judgment it will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon than for you. And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? No, you will be brought down to Hades. "Whoever listens to you listens to me, and whoever rejects you rejects me, and whoever rejects me rejects the one who sent me." The seventy returned with joy, saying, "Lord, in your name even the demons submit to us!"

I love this story, this sending out. That is what an apostle is, one who is sent. We are apostles, just like these original 70.

In the world that is, we need to remember that our faith is found in going out. Our faith is found in having to rely on faith, not work or preparation or trust funds or whatever. We have to trust in God, that is faith.

Think of how radical these instructions are from Jesus:

Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road. Whatever house you enter, first say, 'Peace to this house!'

Go, and I will be with you. Some will be with you, and will be blessed. Some will be against you, and it is not you. It is them. Your blessing will remain, just not with them. And that is not on you.

Somewhere along the way, especially here in America, we have equated blessing with success. Here it is very clear, God calls us to FAITH, never to SUCCESS. I cannot tell you how many a deflated fellow minister or faith leader I have had to remind of this over the years. Sometimes even myself. The Prosperity Gospel is so ubiquitous, and so heretical.

I saw a funny joke the other day, it had a picture of Jeff Bezos who owns most of Amazon. And it said, “The richest man in the world does not have hair. Let no one tell you there is a cure for baldness.” Our responsibility is faith. There is no cure for that. We do not want one. Success is a temptation, like hair for a bald man.

There are a lot of things we think we can control. But it all comes back to faith. We have to lean on those promises from God and know that God is with us in and through it all. It is especially important in these days.

Harrison, in his sermon on Sunday, talked about how strange it is to preach to an empty room. We cast our bread on the water, and trust it will return. That is faith. We toss our sermons on the internet. That is faith. You do a kindness for a neighbor or a complete stranger. That is faith. Friends, when we take tentative, risky first steps, that is faith. And Jesus is with us. We take these steps in faith, but if it is not received, THAT IS OKAY! God sees our faith, not our results. Any results are God’s anyways.

Monday night, we were working on our budget, and talk about a step of faith. We are stepping into the unknown, looking back to see how God has been with us in the past, and will be in the future. That is our calling. That is our hope.

Step out on faith, friends. God is with you! Amen.

Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Year B 1st Christmas WED 2020 Fearful Vision, Faithful Message

 Year B 1st Sunday of Christmas WEDNESDAY, 30 December 2020

Video Service from St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA

“Fearful Vision, Faithful Message”

Collect: Purify our conscience, Almighty God, by your daily visitation, that your Son Jesus Christ, at his coming, may find in us a mansion prepared for himself; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

A Reading (Lesson) from Revelation 1:9-20

I, John, your brother who share with you in Jesus the persecution and the kingdom and the patient endurance, was on the island called Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus. I was in the spirit on the Lord's day, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet saying, "Write in a book what you see and send it to the seven churches, to Ephesus, to Smyrna, to Pergamum, to Thyatira, to Sardis, to Philadelphia, and to Laodicea." Then I turned to see whose voice it was that spoke to me, and on turning I saw seven golden lampstands, and in the midst of the lampstands I saw one like the Son of Man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash across his chest. His head and his hair were white as white wool, white as snow; his eyes were like a flame of fire, his feet were like burnished bronze, refined as in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of many waters. In his right hand he held seven stars, and from his mouth came a sharp, two-edged sword, and his face was like the sun shining with full force. When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. But he placed his right hand on me, saying, "Do not be afraid; I am the first and the last, and the living one. I was dead, and see, I am alive forever and ever; and I have the keys of Death and of Hades. Now write what you have seen, what is, and what is to take place after this. As for the mystery of the seven stars that you saw in my right hand, and the seven golden lampstands: the seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands are the seven churches. 

John 7:53-8:11

Then each of them went home, while Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. Early in the morning he came again to the temple. All the people came to him and he sat down and began to teach them. The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery; and making her stand before all of them, they said to him, "Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?" They said this to test him, so that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, "Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her." And once again he bent down and wrote on the ground. When they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the elders; and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. Jesus straightened up and said to her, "Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?" She said, "No one, sir." And Jesus said, "Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again."

As I have recently preached on the woman caught in adultery, I will let my recent sermon stand on that. So this morning I wanted to focus on the frightening image of Jesus that John sees in our Revelation reading.

I saw seven golden lampstands, and in the midst of the lampstands I saw one like the Son of Man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash across his chest. His head and his hair were white as white wool, white as snow; his eyes were like a flame of fire, his feet were like burnished bronze, refined as in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of many waters. In his right hand he held seven stars, and from his mouth came a sharp, two-edged sword, and his face was like the sun shining with full force. When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead.

This vision of the right-hand-of-the-Father and Resurrected Lord is far different from the mild and meek Jesus who would not return a blow or stand up for himself amidst lies accusing him. Let’s look at each of these details from this portion of the vision and see what we might glean from them...

long robe and with a golden sash 

Lordly, like a king, Jesus is dressed. So unlike his naked body hanging on the cross without a stitch to his name. Here we see him in his true form, the son of the Most High.

head and his hair were white as white wool, white as snow

Cleansed, bleached pure and without blemish, Jesus’ hair is white, like snow. This goes along with the imagery of the lamb, also pure and white without blemish.

eyes were like a flame of fire

Without match, his glare is blazing and burns away anything that covers or hides. In his eyes, all will be revealed and the dross burnt away.

feet were like burnished bronze, refined as in a furnace

While not particularly clear, this is the only reference like this in all known ancient Greek literature. The word for bronze and the word for frankincense seem to be saying that the metal of his feet were glowing like in a furnace. Again, this purifying and burning away imagery comes to the surface.

voice was like the sound of many waters

In the Bible, waters raging are a symbol of power and might, and often Chaos. Uncontrollable, the words rushing forth will not be hindered. They come roaring out, and cannot be stopped.

his right hand he held seven stars

These are the seven churches being addressed, settled in the palm of Christ’s hand.

from his mouth came a sharp, two-edged sword

No matter how you cut it, pun intended, nothing will be held back. Christ’s words will do what needs to be done, coming or going. It cuts both ways.

his face was like the sun shining with full force

Once again, like in the light of noonday, nothing will be hidden; all will be revealed. Like the face of God in the Hebrew Scriptures, it is certain death if looked upon. If we stare at the sun we will go blind. Christ’s face shines bright, like Moses after receiving the 10 Commandments as he was in the presence of God.

Taken together we see what at first glance may be terrifying, but to the early church undergoing persecution, a mighty Christ is in control. And for those of us in our day, what is the word for us? Despite his appearance, listen to his words:

“Do not be afraid; I am the first and the last, and the living one. I was dead, and see, I am alive forever and ever; and I have the keys of Death and of Hades.”

Fear Not. Despite the obvious and unabashed strength, he is still the same Christ we know and adore. He is not about Fear. He is not about revenge. He has paid the debt and the chains of death and eternal damnation he holds in his hand. Of what must we be afraid?

In a year when we have been driven to fear and fret, know that THIS Jesus is the one who has your back, and his words to John and to us? Fear not. Amen.

Friday, December 25, 2020

Year B Christmas Day 2020 Traditions

 Year B Christmas Day 2020

St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA

“Traditions 2020”

Collect: Almighty God, you have given your only-begotten Son to take our nature upon him, and to be born [this day] of a pure virgin: Grant that we, who have been born again and made your children by adoption and grace, may daily be renewed by your Holy Spirit; through our Lord Jesus Christ, to whom with you and the same Spirit be honor and glory, now and for ever. Amen.

John 1:1-14
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.

He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.

And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father's only son, full of grace and truth.

We all have them. We might not see them as Traditions, but we do things in the same way for comfort, for ease, for our brains to go on automatic pilot at times. We also carve out space in our days or seasons to do things with intention. Christmas is filled with Traditions, and that means Christmas is filled with Intention. 

This year our traditions have become more dear because we are tender dealing with our collective grief from a global trauma, or because we had to forego them because of the pandemic.

Some of our family’s traditions are extra special. Stephanie and I were married on the 19th, so on our honeymoon we began to read the three Gospel accounts of Christmas from Luke, then Matthew, the John. And then we read the Gospel according to Dr. Seuss. The Grinch is Gospel, as there is a conversion when his heart “grew three sizes that day.” 

We got to read those together last night in the Rectory. Another Tradition Ritual is  the eating of Chinese Food which comes from my birth family who always went to the Chinese restaurant after the Christmas Eve service. And this year, my kids asked for it especially. 

Traditions bring us comfort. Traditions warm our hearts. Traditions make us cozy inside.

Another one of my traditions is to usually cry, whether I want to or not, when I hear, “I Heard The Bells On Christmas Day.” The song comes from a poem by Longfellow. A simple song, a throwaway song almost until you hear the words with Longfellow’s thoughts in your mind. Two years after his wife died in a tragic accident, which also left him permanently scarred, Longfellow’s son enlisted in the Union Army in the Civil War. Receiving a grave wound, Charley, Longfellow’s son was in hospital in Washington, D.C. Longfellow joined him there to help in his recovery. On Christmas Day, in the midst of personal tragedy and in a beloved country ripping itself apart, he penned these words.   

I heard the bells on Christmas Day Their old, familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet,  the words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And thought how, as the day had come, The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along the unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Till ringing, singing on its way, The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime, a chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And in despair I bowed my head; "There is no peace on earth," I said;
“For hate is strong, and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!"

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep: "God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail, the Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men." 

And that poem became a song when we are tired and beaten by a world that ignores the message of Hope and Love we share at Christmas. One cannot be cynical and call oneself a disciple of Christ. It is as hypocritical as the bigot, the sexist, the blatant sinner. Cynicism is a sin of the heart. And this song reminds us of that. 

This year, I look to the Christ Child in hope, and in trust. Last year at this time we were grieving our dear friend the Reverend Robert Dilday who had passed away on the Saturday night before Advent 4, just one week after he was ordained to the priesthood. A priest for a week. It was and is heartbreaking. 

This year, with over 325,000 dead in the States, and over 1.7 million worldwide from COVID-19, it is hard to see good in it. But how we love and care for our neighbors is what we have been given the task to do. In this, God is glorified. Or as Longfellow put it, “God is not dead, nor does he sleep.” I have to live my life in that hope, because of Christmas day. I know Robert+ did. I know so many who have passed did. I have to live my life in Hope.

Speaking of Hope, one of my favorite Christmas traditions is Charlie Brown’s Christmas Special. 

I heard an interesting piece of trivia, and I have shared it the last few years. I am shocked I had never noticed it before. You see, Linus stops the production of the Christmas show rehearsal to tell Charlie Brown the real meaning of Christmas, and he quotes Luke 2. 

8 And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field , keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 And, lo , the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid . 10 And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold , I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. 11 For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. 12 And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes , lying in a manger. 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying , 14 Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men. 

“That’s the meaning of Christmas, Charlie Brown.” Linus, being a cartoon character, is defined in simple ways. He is a believer, trusting or naive, depending on your point of view. He also is comforted by his security blanket and sucking his thumb. He holds tight to his protection from his insecurities, and most of us cannot think of Linus without it.

But if you go back to watch the video, and I did to make sure a couple of times, while he is quoting Luke, a most amazing thing happens. As soon as he says “Fear not!” his hand disappears from the screen and it returns without the blanket. The boy who is so timid, so fearful, goes center stage and let’s go of his fears, or at least his comfort from his fears. His “security” dropped at his feet. You see, the one who can stand with Linus, the one who can stand beside Longfellow in his pain and grief, the one who can stand beside me in my weakness and insecurities and you in yours has come into the world. “Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.” 

Maybe that is the greatest Christmas Tradition of them all, and it started with Mary, then Joseph, then the Shepherds all the way down to us. Our friend Robert preached it [pointing] from that very pulpit, he believed it, and he lived it to the very end. The words of the angels come to us today, “Fear Not.” And that my friends, is a Tradition to keep, especially in 2020! “Fear Not!” Amen

Thursday, December 24, 2020

Year B Christmas Eve I 2020 Grief and Light

Year B Christmas Eve I, 25 December 2020

Video Service from St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA

“Grief and Light”

Collect: O God, you make us glad by the yearly festival of the birth of your only Son Jesus Christ: Grant that we, who joyfully receive him as our Redeemer, may with sure confidence behold him when he comes to be our Judge; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Luke 2:1-20

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid; for see-- I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger." And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,

"Glory to God in the highest heaven,

and on earth peace among those whom he favors!" 

When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, "Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us." So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

I tend to look at the joy and wonder of Christmas, and that is a privileged position. We look to the light, if we do, because we have the light. For those who have wandered in darkness, the light can be blinding and they often have to turn their faces away.

If all you have ever thought is that your glass is less than half full, it is very hard for one to look at the glass and see it as more than half full without having doubts or fear that it will soon be taken away or that it is a cruel joke. 

Our expectations are conditioned. If we have been taught by the hardship of life to see the worst, we find what we look for. 

It is of no surprise that Christmas came when it was darkest. The Solstice and the blinding light are closely linked together. 

This year, a year in which we have seen so much darkness and worry, the light is all the more needed, all the more wanted, all the more here.

In a movie that haunts me, the main character is deluded, and cannot escape from a hell he has made for himself. Throughout the movie the other characters say to him, “Open your eyes.” After years of lack of use, it is so hard. When he finally does, and opens his eyes, the truth, the reality, is beyond belief. But that is where he is reborn.

I do not need to make a litany of all that has transpired over the course of this year, and it is not over yet. A running joke going around is that God sent an angel to upload all the history of the 2020s, the whole decade, and the angel misheard God and poured a decade of history into this single year. It feels that way.

This week I went out to see the Great Conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter Monday at the Solstice. After all the buildup I expected more, but it was still amazing. People’s pictures were much better than my reality. But as we waited to see it on that night it reminded me, it has to be dark for light to be revealed. The sun had to set, the twilight had to lessen, the darkness had to take hold for me to appreciate the wonder of what I was seeing.

When Charles Dickens wrote his ubiquitous, now, story A Christmas Carol he had to go very dark for the light for it to be as bright as it was at the end. We need ghosts to haunt us for the angels of our better nature to emerge. 

Maybe this year, our collective trauma and our collective grief will allow us to embrace the light when it comes fully.

As the prophet Isaiah reminded us, 

The people who walked in darkness

have seen a great light; 

those who lived in a land of deep darkness--

on them light has shined. 

You have multiplied the nation,

you have increased its joy...

The timid are afraid to have hope. The kicked dog. The abused child. The battered spouse. The exploited worker. They all have reason to be wary, experience is an expensive and hard-to-forget teacher. But hear me when I say:

Yes. It is dark, has been, and will be for a while yet.

Yes. There is light and the darkness cannot put it out.

Yes. You can hope. You do not need to worry forever. A dawning will come and it will be glorious.

Friends, that is why we have each other. We have the gift of the Church. We gather today through technology, sadly, but we gather. We so wanted to be together, but the rains came. An apt metaphor for 2020. But STILL, we proclaim the Good News of Great Joy that can be for ALL the PEOPLE. We have to proclaim it any and everywhere.

Think of a dark room with the windows closed tight. Outside the room the dawn is breaking and a beam breaks in under the door. It does not stay at the threshold, but breaks in by streaks that stretch across the floor, spreading and seemingly growing as it does. That single beam fractures our darkness, and in our acclimated blindness it seems to fill the room with light. 

This Christmas, let the light of Christ break through. Break through into your room, let it stretch and reach even into the darkest recesses of the chambers of your heart that so need the light.

I think one of the greatest needs that we have in our society is better ways to deal with our collective grief from the trauma we have all felt. Some have yelled. Some have called it fake. Some have belittled and dismissed. Some have just suffered through it and soldiered on. But we all have been hurt this year. We have hurt each other by what we have done and by what we have left undone. We have been traumatized by the pandemic. By our political crisis. By our despair.

Our pain has gotten so bad, and we kept scouring for hope on our smart phones, or for information at least, that there was a word invented for our collective act of despair: DOOMSCROLLING. We keep looking at the news obsessively, unrelentingly, and even that is taking a toll.

And in light of all of that, I name it. We are grieving. I acknowledge it. It will take a long time for us to get over this last year. And I give this hope. I believe in you. I believe in the God who made you, loves you, and redeemed you. And I believe that the only way we can get better and move on is to recognize that we have to rely and support one another. 

The Christ child came that we might have life and have it to the full. Jesus was born so that we could sleep well tonight knowing that this too shall pass, and that we will thrive in days to come as long as we have each other. 

And that is Good News. Good News worth sharing. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot, will not overcome it. On this I cannot stay silent.

204 years ago, tonight, a simple organist Franz Gruber had taken a poem by the Catholic priest of the St. Nicholas church in Oberndorf, Austria, and wrote the tune of one of our most beloved Christmas carols. The organ had been damaged. Some say a mouse chewed the leather of the bellows, while others say flooding damaged them. Either way, the organ would not play for the midnight mass on Christmas Eve. 

And on this night, this night of all nights, they could not be silent. In just a few hours, Gruber took the words of the poem Father Joseph Mohr had written, and with his guitar sang a song that breaks into the night. It also is a light that shines in our darkness, and let’s us share the joy. We, like Father Joseph and Max Gruber, cannot be silent on this night. On this night we cannot stay silent.

[Singing] Silent Night, Holy Night

All is calm, all is bright

Round yon virgin, mother and child

Holy infant so tender and mild

Sleep in heavenly peace, sleep in heavenly peace.