Sunday, January 19, 2020

Year A 2nd Epiphany 2020 Two Questions & A Statement

Year A 2nd Sunday after Epiphany, 19 January 2020
St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA
“Two Questions & A Statement”

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 1:29-42
John saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’ I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.” And John testified, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.”

The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, “What are you looking for?” They said to him, “Rabbi” (which translated means Teacher), “where are you staying?” He said to them, “Come and see.” They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon. One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. He first found his brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah” (which is translated Anointed). He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas” (which is translated Peter).

A favorite group introduction game is called “Two Truths and a Lie.” When people are first getting to know one another they often have a hard time. Temperaments, personalities, awkwardness, all of it makes for a hard time. And finding out commonalities, differences, and quirks are a fun way to start the process of building trust. So the game is exactly what it is called, 2 truths, and a lie. The person says three things about themselves or what they have done. Two must be true. One must not. And then these strangers, or people who could know each other better, guess which is the lie. It is fun. It is often funny. We also see how peoples’ minds work. When I am guiding groups at an introductory level I often use it to break the ice.

Jesus was in a similar situation. Today and next week we see the origin stories of the key disciples as told in John, or their introduction to Jesus thus beginning the pivotal relationship for the rest of their lives. And we see how they have to build trust with this stranger. They had heard good things, and it had piqued their interest.

Today we are going to play instead of “2 Truths & A Lie,” we are going to see “2 Questions & A Statement.” From this we will see trust and rapport build, that slow and steady growth of giving one another the benefit of the doubt.

If you think about it, that is what relationships are. Giving one another the benefit of the doubt. Am I going to trust you and try and maintain your trust? Could be cursory. Could be a lifelong commitment. Just like driving down the highway, are you going to stay in your lane and properly operate your vehicle? Am I? We see here the dance of trust beginning.

So let’s start with the Statement: “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” John points his two disciples to this one who was coming toward them. Now from what you probably know, John the Baptizer was an intense guy. He called it like he saw it, and did not mince words. Not everyone could take it, and remember, he ended up losing his head after he, well, “lost his head.” [The king had married his former sister-in-law, eww.] So the folks who knew and followed John knew he did not joke around. When he said this was the King Who Was To Come, he meant it. He did not joke around; he was a serious guy. This statement was the precipitating event that started this chain of events. The Lamb of God, at least from John’s perspective, was there, and people who had been waiting for that day were intrigued. Could it be? Could it really be?

John uses his relationship with his disciples to transfer some of the trust they have in him to Jesus. I had a friend this week ask me to make introductions to someone he wanted to meet, and ask a favor from. I sent an email connecting the two. I, and the one asking for the favor, were trusting that my email would be opened, when his might not. That transfer of trust takes place all the time.

And so our curious two leave John behind, and start following after this one who had been pointed out to them.

Which leads us to our first question. “What are you looking for?”

Lots of ways to say that one. [Saying it with different inflections, tones, emphases]

I would like to think that Jesus was a bit more open, maybe a bit less confrontational. [Calm and polite] “What are you looking for?”

Now in situations where someone was following me, my phrase would be, “Hi. Can I help you?” But Jesus is walking down the path out in the middle of nowhere. What are you looking for? Could be simple. We are just heading the same way. Could be profound. We want to know if you are God’s Anointed.

In the first few months of working here, I was walking back from the breakfast crew after Wednesday morning’s Eucharist service. We always gather at Ashland Coffee and Tea. I had gotten a ride up, and would often walk back. And being new to town, I was an unknown. Now picture me. 6’5”. Big guy. All in black. It was cold, so I had on a leather coat. One of Ashland’s Finest (no facetiousness there) was sitting on the side of  Thompson Street (which becomes England St. at the tracks). He was sitting there as people headed to work to keep the speed down, and he saw me coming towards him. He was eyeing me pretty closely. As I got near the car, he actually rolled down the window. Getting near to him, I unzipped my jacket revealing my collar, leaned over, and said, “Good morning, officer!” He responded quickly, “Good morning, Father.” He was doing his job. Maintaining the trust. Keeping people doing 25 through there, and checking out large figures dressed all in black walking through a neighborhood early on a Wednesday. He could have asked me, before he saw the collar, “What are you looking for?”

And I would ask the same of us. You are here today, what brought you here? What are you looking for when you show up? Enlightenment? Encouragement? Challenge? Comfort? And most of us are looking for different things on different days. It is the nature of life.

There is no way anyone or anything can be all things to all people. Some of you think I am great. Some of you don’t. No one will please everyone. Look at Jesus. Some hailed him with palm branches. Some of them shouted, “Crucify!” If you want to please everyone all the time, sell ice cream.

What is it we are looking for in our faith? Do we really want to change? If we are not changing and growing, it is not faith. Faith is stepping out and not knowing if our footfall will land; it is taking a risk and not knowing the outcome; it is following someone and not knowing where this encounter will lead. It is trusting God and in God’s Way, even when all the evidence points to something else.

We live in divided times, when what people are looking for is often mutually exclusive. If I say I like X, there will be shouts for Y. If I say I like Y, I have discriminated Z.

As I mentioned earlier, one of the things we see in this passage is the elaborate dance of learning to give one another the benefit of the doubt, the building of rapport and trust. We all do it. We see if we can trust people. Some people trust, and see if they are right. Some people distrust after experience has jaded them, and have to be [extensively] proven wrong. We all are wired differently and have different experiences. Trust is part of both of those.

But Jesus knew that these two were looking for something. They could not even put it into words. So we Jesus asked, “What is it you are looking for?” And so we come to the second question. The only response they had was, “Rabbi, where are you staying?”

Did they really care? Did they want to put him up? Middle Eastern culture was, and still is, very hospitable. It could have been that.

Or it could have been an awkward filler. A favorite comedian talked about those awkward moments when people first meet. He said one time he was flirting with a young lady in his adolescence and asked her, “Do you like bread?” Sometimes some ridiculous things come out as we build trust with someone. That makes us vulnerable and we build trust.

Jesus knew that they were beginning the trust-building dance. And we see him doing something very wise. I just mentioned vulnerability. When asked where he was staying, he says, “Come and see.”
Think of how trusting that is. I am not threatened by you. I am a stranger here. Come and see where I am laying my head. I trust you, and you are welcome to come with me if you are actually interested in my lodging. And underlying all of this, you are welcome to come and see if you are actually interested in me.

Now we know a few things. One of these followers was Andrew, and after he went and saw for himself, the first thing he did was run and tell his brother what he had found, “the Messiah!” The number one reason people come to a church for the first time… Do you know what that is? For people not new to an area, the predominant answer is someone from the congregation asked them to come or told them about it. It is not rocket-science, folks. They know you trust the church as a whole and the clergy, or you would not go. And being enthusiastic about your church, like Andrew was with Simon, is a big way in bringing somebody in.

And it all comes back to God. We come here seeking a connection, that feeling of being connected, to God. Some get it in the prayers. Some get it in the singing. Some get in Passing of the Peace. I just pray you get it. I trust that you will, and I trust that you do. That is what we are about.

“Look, here is the Lamb of God!”

“What are you looking for?”

“Rabbi, where are you staying?”

“Come and see.”

We hold the same conversation. We get the same invitation. Thanks be to God. Amen

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Year A 1st Epiphany WED 2020 Letting Go for the Kingdom

Year A 1st Sunday after Epiphany WEDNESDAY, 15 January 2020
St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA
“Letting Go in the Kingdom of God”

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.

John 1:29-42
John saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’ I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.” And John testified, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.”
The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, “What are you looking for?” They said to him, “Rabbi” (which translated means Teacher), “where are you staying?” He said to them, “Come and see.” They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon. One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. He first found his brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah” (which is translated Anointed). He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas” (which is translated Peter).

[On an interesting fluke of the daily lectionary and the Sunday lectionary, today’s Gospel reading is the exact same as Sunday’s. Weird. I just do not want you to be surprised on Sunday. Yes, they are exactly the same.]

One of the hard parts, but very necessary parts, of doing Christian ministry is letting go. I am not talking about the possessions, or the sins that “cling so closely.”  I am speaking of letting go of something can be just as hard. Sometimes we have to let go of people, people we love, trust, and with whom we share deep relationships.

When I would mentor new teachers at the middle schools where I worked, I would often hear the new folks complain about how mean the eighth graders were, especially about now as they entered their spring semester, their FINAL semester with us. Now eighth graders should not be expected to be emotionally mature. We asked for polite, and sometimes got it. But I would remind the teachers that middle school is designed to be a way-station, a transition. If we did our jobs right, they would be moving on to other things. Hopefully bigger, better things. The students knew in their bones that they were ready to move on and that came out in their emotions. Call it senioritis or whatever, but there is a time and place when transitions take place and there is a price to be paid for that, usually emotionally.

Ministry has this happen a lot, too. There are times and places when we need to send folks out to new pastures, to where God is calling and leading them. Abram left Ur. Moses was taken BACK to Egypt, even with the murder charge hanging over his head. Jesus was led to the Jordan to be baptized by John. And this is where we are getting to today.

John the Baptizer knew his place. He knew his role, his mission that he was to be about. And at the height of his ministry, he pointed some of his key leaders to other fields. I wonder if their were pangs in his heart as he did so?
The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus.
I wonder what toll it took for him to send off these two? How pivotal to his ministry were these disciples?

When I was transitioning into the Episcopal Church, my rector told me one time how hard it was, but how necessary it was, for her to be able to send off some key folks. There were several of us in process toward Holy Orders. Just in the few years we were there, 5 newly called priests and a deacon started there or transitioned through.

Abbott+ and I were talking about it. I was thanking her for her guidance and encouragement in the process. She was shockingly honest about how she was happy and heartbroken at the same time. One of the costs of being a priest is loving the ones in your charge, and the leaders often have to move on. John the Baptizer felt it, too, I am sure.

One of the followers John pointed to Jesus we learn in a few verses is Andrew who goes and tells his brother Simon (who becomes Peter) that they had found God’s Anointed. Think about that. By letting go of Andrew, and encouraging him to this new call, he brings Simon Peter into Jesus’ orbit. And in so doing, the Church gains its dynamic leader who helped make us who we are.

We are not about building our kingdoms, followers of Christ are about building up THE KINGDOM, the Kingdom of God. It is hard. But it is worth it.

On an interesting side note, Abbott+ left St. Andrew’s in Richmond to become the Canon to the Ordinary in San Francisco, and as we speak she is doing the “walk-about” to see if God is calling her to be Bishop of Minnesota. Letting go is a necessary part of building up the Kingdom, and the tug of heartstrings is often the price we pay. Pray for her, and for the Diocese of Minnesota. Amen

Sunday, January 12, 2020

Year A 1st Epiphany 2020 Because He First Loved Me

Year A 1st Sunday after Epiphany, 12 January 2020
St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA
“Because God First Loved Me”

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.

Matthew 3:13-17
Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

We come today to the Baptism of our Lord, the first Sunday of the Epiphany.  We remember the arrival of Jesus to the Jordan River to be baptized by his cousin John.  I have often heard the question asked, “Why did Jesus need to be baptized?”  

I find this question to be like, “Why did the chicken cross the road?” or “How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?” Both are unanswerable. Even worse, both are moot. The whys in most situations are not knowable, as some of you have heard me speak about before. I like to look at what is. Almost to say, “Why did Jesus need to be baptized?” In response, “Because he was baptized.” It does not answer the why, but Jesus’ need to do so was apparent because he did it. There is something intrinsic that is happening. But what?

And that begs the question, “Why do any of us need to be baptized?” Why do we undergo this strange and bizarre ritual? An easy answer, because Jesus told us to go and be baptized in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. (Matthew 28:19)

But what is the role of ritual? What is the role of doing what we do at this font? At that altar? How come?

I have used this quote often, usually at marriages.  “A ritual is an enactment of a myth.”-Joseph Campbell  (Hear the word myth in this context as a group-shaping story, not a lie or fiction.)

We go through the motions of a story, to make that formative story not just a part of our story, but our actual story. Last week the children were darling in the Epiphany play. They could not have been more cute. And as they dressed as shepherds and sheep, as angels and kings, as Joseph and Mary even, they made the story their own. Any time we go through a rite, we take on the story it represents.

When we take on the story of baptism we become the stories of Scripture. In baptism, we wash away the old like in Noah’s Flood to bring about a new beginning. In baptism, we are ritually cleansed like in the laws of the Tabernacle and the Temple. In baptism, we follow Christ into the Jordan. In baptism, we are laid in the tomb of Christ’s sepulcher to rise to new life. All these stories become our story. We are invited into this newness of life.

Looking at the Catechism in our Prayer Book we see these answers (pp. 858):
Q.      What is Holy Baptism?A.      Holy Baptism is the sacrament by which God adopts us as his children and makes us members of Christ's Body,the Church, and inheritors of the kingdom of God.           Q.      What is the outward and visible sign in Baptism?A.      The outward and visible sign in Baptism is water, inwhich the person is baptized in the Name of the Father,and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.           Q.      What is the inward and spiritual grace in Baptism?A.      The inward and spiritual grace in Baptism is union with Christ in his death and resurrection, birth into God'sfamily the Church, forgiveness of sins, and new life inthe Holy Spirit.

Looking at all these questions, we are baptized not to receive God’s Grace, but because we have received God’s Grace.  It is an outward sign of an inward Grace.  We are Baptized because God first loved us.  Do not put the cart before the horse!  Christ did not need to be baptized to receive God’s love and forgiveness.  Christ was baptized because he resided in God’s love and Grace.

When we have the rituals of the Church, we often want to equate it to cause and effect.  Except we reverse the reality.  Our effect is the cause, and our cause is the effect.  We get married because of the love and the union that already is, not that we get married to have love and a union.  The wedding is an outward sign of that already received inward reality and Grace.

I got ordained by the Bishop not to make me a priest, but because God’s call and the response on my life led me to kneel before Bishop Shannon where it was outwardly recognized that I was a priest in the Church. The Church was catching up to what God had already done. Marriage is the same way. It is the Church solemnizing the Union that already exists.

Now we look at our Sacraments, Holy Baptism and Holy Eucharist.  Are they any different?  We are baptized to get into God’s Grace?  No.

In fact, let’s look at Christ’s story and see what we can learn.  We need to just look at the last two verses.
Matthew 3:16-17
And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
If we go with our usual, cause and effect approach, then Jesus getting baptized triggers him being God’s Son, God’s Beloved, with whom God is pleased.  Now, did Jesus become God’s Son at this moment?  No.  That reality already was.  Did Jesus become God’s Beloved at this point?  No.  God already loved him.  There are those that argued that Jesus became God’s Son at Baptism, or at the Transfiguration, or at the Ascension.  These ideas are called Adoptionism.  Adoptionism is a heresy.  It is why we say in the creeds, I believe in Jesus, “begotten, not made, of one being with the Father.”  Jesus was not adopted.  He was born the Son of God.

Think of it this way.  I love my daughters.  I love them when they are cute.  I love them when they are cranky.  I love them no matter what.  But there are times when they make wonderful choices or do something that is so great that I am about to burst.  In moments like that I might burst out, “That’s my girl!  I love you so much!  I am so proud of you!”  That’s what rang out from heaven.  “That’s my boy!  I love him so much!  I am so proud of you!”

For me, the word that encapsulates all of this is idea for me is Beloved.  Agapetos in the Greek.  The object of God’s love.  Jesus is called The Agapetos (ho’ Agapetos) by the Divine voice.  This object of God’s divine love is what comes to us.  In this season of Epiphany, may our eyes be opened to this reality like the Wise Ones who went home by another road.

Now, it is Sunday morning.  We are in church.  I can assume that most of you agree with the idea of Jesus being the Agapetos, the object of God’s divine love or you probably would not be here.  The thing I love about this word, though, is there is something else which the New Testament uses this word to describe.  In Paul’s letter in speaking to the Churches in various cities, he writes to his beloved.  Now it is not human love we are talking about here.  It is that agape, that divine love, that we are talking about.

Jesus is not only the Beloved.  You are, too.  You are the Agapetos.  You are the object of God’s divine love.  In my wallet I carry a picture of my daughters.  They are smiling.  They are loving each other.  This picture makes me so happy every time I see it flop out.  How much more do you think God loves you?

In fact, think of how we would look at ourselves in the mirror if we started that way every morning.  “Good morning, beloved of God!”  Even more, what if we came up EVERY ONE that we meet and in our minds declare them the Beloved of God.  Think of how our church, our neighborhood, or city would change.

We come to the Baptismal sacramental waters not for God, but for us.  It is our way of saying to ourselves lest we forget and to everyone that knows us, “I see, I see. I am the Beloved of God. God made me. God claims me. God loves me. God is pleased with me.  I am baptized and there is nothing that can ever take that away.  It surrounds and binds and seals us as God’s own, and Christ’s own, forever.

This year, as we continue to explore the depths of God, it is not a scary and foreboding place with some monster lurking within. It is a spectacular cavern, filled with sights and wonders. And we are invited in. We are welcome because we are the Agapetos. We are welcome as the Beloved. And we know this because of Jesus. He said it; he modeled it; and, he showed us how to live with everyone beloved.

Beloved of God. Just simmer in that for a while. No ifs, ands, or buts. As Peter said in Acts, “I truly understand God shows no partiality…” You are Beloved. Amen.


Sunday, January 5, 2020

Year A Epiphany 2020 Guide Our Steps

Year A Epiphany, 4 January 2020
St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA
“Guide Our Steps”

Collect: O God, by the leading of a star you manifested your only Son to the peoples of the earth: Lead us, who know you now by faith, to your presence, where we may see your glory face to face; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Matthew 2:1-12
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, "Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage." When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, "In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
`And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who is to shepherd my people Israel.'"
Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, "Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage." When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

I love Epiphany. Really, I do. Such a simple story so true to human nature. Picture this. Three noted scholars, Wise Men, people who know the secrets of the Universe, the Magic of the World, Magi if you will. These wise guys, and we assume three because there were three gifts, Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar according to tradition, see a celestial sign. They follow it to its natural outcome, or so they think. Even Wise People can get trapped by their assumptions. They see a sign that they interpret to be the birth of the King of the Jews, and where are kings usually born? Palaces, of course. So that is where they head.

King Herod is in Jerusalem, established as a regional king by the Roman Emperor, knew who was in charge. But he had problem making sure his position was firmly without threat in his own little, problematic corner of the Roman Empire. So when these scholars from the “East” show up, he smiles and immediately checks to see what in the world they are talking about. His own scholars confirm that a prophesied King, the Messiah, was to be born, but in the town of Bethlehem, just 10 miles down the road. The scholars, innocent in their intentions, may have known about the promised Messiah from their knowledge of the Hebrew scriptures from the Babylonian captivity when the Jews were taken to Babylon almost 600 years before, before they returned 520 or so years before. So in the meantime, lots of questions emerged. So they made the trip to be sure, and have their questions answered.

Herod was as surprised as they were, and he was scared of threats to his authority, trying hard to establish this new kingdom for himself. To be even more safe, he asked when the star appeared. Later in Matthew 2 we learn that the star had been moving toward the East 2 years. Which is why Herod slaughtered all the innocents 2 years old and younger. This leads us to a few things. How old was Jesus when the Magi got there? The word used here is child, not baby like earlier in the passage. Maybe Jesus was there for a couple of years, allowing Mary time to recover. It is not like the Shepherds who found him newborn the night of his birth.

So between his naming 8 days after birth, to when the Wise Men arrived, we could be talking days, we could be talking years. Don’t get hung up on that. The details of when are not necessary. The big deal is the Why.

Why we celebrate Epiphany is that the Light who was to come in the World has been seen. So long in our faith tradition, the children of Abraham have held their passion and zeal for God, but kept it for themselves. They were repeatedly instructed to be a Light to the Nations. Maybe they heard this to mean the best of the bunch, put high on a pedestal. They held it close for only themselves, instead of being an instructor on the same level with those wandering in the darkness and help others down the path to God.

As we heard in Isaiah 60:
Arise, shine; for your light has come,
and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.
For darkness shall cover the earth,
and thick darkness the peoples;
but the Lord will arise upon you,
and his glory will appear over you.
Nations shall come to your light,
and kings to the brightness of your dawn.
We celebrate Epiphany because the Light has been revealed. In fact, that is the etymology of that word, Revealed. In Greek, Epi- meaning “to” or “on”, and -phainein “to show.” So our Epiphany means that the Promised One has been “shown to” all of us. The Light shines, and we have seen it. Thanks be to God.

Epiphany, this enlightening of minds is exactly what we are going for in resolutions and promises to self at New Year’s. We say we want change, and we try to make steps to start right. Gym memberships soar, and attendance increases for a few weeks, until the glow of the best of intentions wears off.

The thing about this Jesus, we have to go away different from the way we came. We can make all the promises we want, we can have the best of intentions, but if we start out back the way we came, we have not truly changed. When we go to meet Christ, wherever he is, we must return differently.

This is an apt metaphor for our Christian walk. Those Wise Men, “warned in a dream, went home by another road.” And we must do the same. If we do not go home differently from the way we came, why did we bother going in the first place? When we come forward to receive Christ in his Real Presence at his altar, we need to be transformed. We are called to radical, wholesale change. No ifs, ands, or buts.

We, like the Wise Men, are called to go home another way.

But what does that mean? Really. Deep down what does that mean? When I come to meet Christ here at the altar, or in my prayers, or in my service to him, I can have an attitude of asking Christ in His Real Presence to show me where I am off his path and how to get back on it. I can be open to his correction, and work to enact it in my life. I can have an attitude of being one who is always learning instead of one of being an authority all the time.

Paul shared of his Epiphany, even though he had thought he had the light already. He learned that it was to be shared...

Ephesians 3:1-6
This is the reason that I Paul am a prisoner for Christ Jesus for the sake of you Gentiles-- for surely you have already heard of the commission of God's grace that was given me for you, and how the mystery was made known to me by revelation, as I wrote above in a few words, a reading of which will enable you to perceive my understanding of the mystery of Christ. In former generations this mystery was not made known to humankind, as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit: that is, the Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.

And that is our epiphany! That this babe, this humble, simple babe came into our context to help us change our experience so that we might be called Children of God. Wow! Think of how that changes everything!

We have been saying for a few months that our prayer is for us to have a clear vision for 2020. It was more than a pun, or a play on words. We are praying for an epiphany, for the Holy Spirit to lead us, even unto the depths of God. We continue in it this year, this year of Vision. This year we ask for this in faith that there are already things at work enabling what is to come. We ask for this in hope that God will guide us. We ask for this in love of the One leading the way.

Like the Wise Men, may we be led home “by another road.” Amen

Wednesday, December 25, 2019

Year A Christmas Day 2019 Traditions 2019

Year A Christmas Day 2019
St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA
“Traditions 2019”

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.  


Last night we got in late and I just caught one of my traditions, the Midnight Mass from the Vatican was just finishing up. 

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 we missed, the eating of Chinese Food which comes from my birth family who always went to the Chinese restaurant after the Christmas Eve service. There was no open Chinese nearby. I will have to find one for next year.

Traditions warm our hearts. Traditions make us comfy 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. Our dear friend the Reverend Robert Dilday passed away on Saturday night, just one week after he was ordained to the priesthood. A priest for a week. It is heartbreaking. It was so much work to enable him to his work for so little time. He was a friend when we were both Baptists, and then an intern here, preaching from that very pulpit. As senseless as this seems, I cannot look at it in fear. I cannot look at in doubt. I have to look at it that even in its senselessness God will be glorified. 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.

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. “Fear Not!” Amen

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Year A Christmas Eve 10:30 Candlelight 2019 A Crèche In You

Year A Christmas Eve 10:30 pm 24 December 2019
St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA
“A Crèche In You” 

Collect: O God, you have caused this holy night to shine with the brightness of the true Light: Grant that we, who have known the mystery of that Light on earth, may also enjoy him perfectly in heaven; where with you and the Holy Spirit he lives and reigns, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.
Christmas II readings:
Isaiah 62:6-12
Titus 3:4-7
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 pray I never get too old for Christmas. The wistfulness of hearing Bing Crosby sing I’ll Be Home for Christmas. The joy of opening a present given with love. The greater joy of watching someone open a gift you know they’ll love. May none of us never be too grown up to search the skies on Christmas Eve, whether for Santa, for a Star, or for bands of Angels. I hope we never lose the wonder of imagining what it was like on that night so long ago. 

The pondering is something that may be familiar to us, but in recent years there have been a lot of things that have pointed to the fact that Christmas, as we know it, is a recent invention. The movie The Man Who Invented Christmas is not about the baby in a manger, but rather Charles Dickens and how he took a relatively minor Christian feast and made it a day of celebration with a whole commercial season tagged onto it. Before there was Yuletide, a pagan tradition, focusing more on the shortened days and the solstice.

The Church had tied itself to these pre-Christian rites, Latin or Germanic, saying that the light they were celebrating was the true light, the Christ who came into the world. As we prayed in the Collect: “O God, you have caused this holy night to shine with the brightness of the true Light: Grant that we, who have known the mystery of that Light on earth, may also enjoy him perfectly in heaven…” In the dark of this night, wintry cold, we look to a crackling fire for warmth and strength. We pray for light in these shortened days.

And again we are reminded that it was a pregnant girl, with a man she probably barely knew,  fulfilling the expectations of society, and maybe not even realizing the checklist of prophecies that they would be fulfilling each step of their journey to Bethlehem, to Egypt, and back to Nazareth. It would be easy to think of it back there, back then. But we come this night, in the quiet cold, to remind ourselves that Jesus’ birth is Here. Jesus’ birth is Now.

St. Francis may not be a big part of your lives. But one thing he did you probably have in your home right now. In 1223, 796 years ago tonight, TONIGHT, mind you, he gathered the townspeople and his followers to come and pray, and sing, and worship at a midnight mass in a little town called Greccio in Italy. Small and inconsequential, Greccio was a lot like Bethlehem. Ignored and on no one’s radar. But what happened almost 800 years ago is right here in our midst. 

St. Francis decided that he wanted to make everyone aware that Jesus is being born to us still, and in his devotion to the Christ Child, the Little Child of Bethlehem he called him, he gathered an ox, a donkey, a young maiden, an older man, and arranged them around a manger. For the first time in recorded history he staged what we would call a Living Nativity. Another word to describe it is a Crèche. We have one here with us tonight. 

This symbol has become ubiquitous, but such a simple thing, it is singular. Before we had stained glass, or pageants, or musicals, or movies, a humble man of God brought together the simple elements to draw us closer to the Living God.

Like the bread and the wine, also simple elements, God blessed it and used it. Now we have millions of nativity sets representing the miracle of God putting on a human suit and moving into the neighborhood.

We have the Angels singing Gloria. We have the Shepherds preaching Good News. We have a tired and jubilant set of parents being barged in on by those most would never invite to the party, any party. And yet, here they are. And by inviting them we see that all are welcomed into this singular moment upon which we see all of human history hanging. This is the Cruxpoint that leads to the Cross. This is the night when all the Universe held its breath to see if Love could be Born, to see if Grace could come True.

And so with the simplicity of a fool, St. Francis called his fellow devotees to lift up this one so tender and mild. And we still do to this day. We sing, “Glory to the newborn king.”

He chose a setting outside a church, a humble place on a grove upon a hilltop, and he invited the villagers of Greccio to bring their torches to a midnight mass. The poverty of the Child, the humbleness of his birth was what St. Francis wanted to portray. He had been to the real Bethlehem in the real Holy Land, and the simplicity and poverty struck him. So different from the deification he had so often seen linked to Jesus. Live animals would provide the sights, the sounds, and yes, the smells of what welcomed the Almighty to our plain of existence. He wanted Simplicity to be honored; he wanted Poverty to be exalted; and, he wanted Humility to be commended. The solemnities of the Mass were done there with all the senses being uplifted, the holy and world met in the birth of this newborn King.

According to St. Bonaventure, “a certain valiant and veracious soldier… affirmed that he beheld an Infant marvellously beautiful, sleeping in the manger, Whom the blessed Father Francis embraced with both his arms, as if he would awake Him from sleep.” The tradition and the story continued slowly until 1291 when the first Franciscan pope, Nicholas IV, put up a Crèche in Rome at the Basilica of St. Mary Major. It has been spread around the world ever since. In cultures where Jesus is not revered, and only acknowledged as a foreign God, a Crèche is not an unfamiliar scene.

And the ones I have seen around the world are as contextual as they can be. I often see Oxen and Donkeys. I have seen Sheep and Camels. In northern Europe, I have seen Moose even. In Africa, I saw there all African Crèches. I have seen pictures of Asian Crèches with elephants, South American Crèches with llamas, and the like. I find it wonderful. For isn’t that how Christ should come to us? Emmanuel? God with us. God one of us. God one with us.

And tonight I would invite you to set up a Crèche in your heart. You need nothing. You already have all you need.

You see, we are all Oxen and Asses. We are smelly and tired. We are looking just to get some rest, and yet, even in this state, we are invited into this scene. We are invited into the story of Grace. We are all the Oxen; we are all the Donkeys.

We are all the Shepherds, recipients of the divine decree that “unto [us] is born this day… a Savior which is Christ the Lord.” Will we leave our livelihood behind and go and see if it could be true? Will we shout with loud hosannas to let all the world know what we have witnessed, what we now know to be true? We are all the Shepherds.

We are all the sheep. Clueless. Drug along. Yet still apart. We would rather be back in our field, eating our grass. But sometimes we find ourselves where we need to be instead of where we want to be. We are all sheep.

We are all Joseph, called to “Fear Not” and play a part in a story that is not our own, or so it would seem from our perspective, but God had other ideas. God has a part that only we can play. We are, all of us, Joseph, too.

And yes, we are even Mary, the mother of God. We all have the option to say or not to God, “Yes, Lord, I believe. I trust. I am yours.” Just a few decades after St. Francis lived, a German theologian, scholar, and mystic, Meister Eckhart penned this.
'We are all meant to be mothers of God. What good is it to me if this eternal birth of the divine Son takes place unceasingly, but does not take place within myself? And, what good is it to me if Mary is full of grace if I am not also full of grace? What good is it to me for the Creator to give birth to his Son if I do not also give birth to him in my time and my culture? This, then, is the fullness of time: When the Son of Man is begotten in us.'
You, yes, you are the Theotokos, the God-Bearer. You are to bear Christ, and let him be born in your heart, in your life, in your times by what you do, what you say, by who you are.

That Crèche that is in us, is an echo of St. Francis’ devotion almost 800 years ago. Take that with you. Make room for Christ to be born in you tonight. May it be seen in our lives that we too, like Francis, embrace this Little Child of Bethlehem. And may the world truly see how we embrace him with all of who we are. Amen.

Year A Christmas Eve 4:30 Family Service 2019 Angels We Have Heard At Wal-Mart

Year A Christmas Eve 4:30 pm 24 December 2019
St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA
“Angels We Have Heard In Wal-Mart”

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.
Christmas I readings
Isaiah 9:2-7
Titus 2:11-14
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.

The Angels came around that day. They had been waiting as long as there was Time. When the first dawn was new this day was planned. It is so hard to stay quiet when you have something important to say. It is so hard to stay quiet before jumping up and shouting, “Surprise!” Think of all those angels, the heavenly host, holding their breath for years upon years, centuries over centuries, millenia uncountable. And in the fullness of that Time, the Angels who had been holding their tongues let loose in Song...
[Sing] Gloria, gloria, in excelsis Deo.
Glory to God in the highest. It was beyond belief, and who do you think heard it? Did kings and queens show up to hear the angels sing? No. It wasn’t kings and queens. Did mighty warriors with strong armies show up to hear the singing? No. There were no mighty armies. Who would God pick to hear the news that Good News had come to the earth, that a Savior had come? God chose someone who no one else would ever choose. God chose the people who would have been picked last for any team.

If it was in our country, with the way we do things, it may have been a garbage dump with Angels singing to the workers with the garbage trucks. It may have been at a prison with the people hearing the heavenly voices through the bars of their cells. It may have been in a camp of homeless people huddling together to stay warm. God chose the people who needed to hear Good News the most, and started with them. 

The Shepherds were not bad, but they had a nasty job this time of year. They were “living in the fields, keeping watch over their flocks by night.” This time of year, when Jesus was born, they had to do that to help the ewes, the mommy sheep, give birth to their lambs. It was a messy business, and because of that they were considered “unclean.” But that did not matter to God. God wanted everyone invited to this party, and so the angels started with the last ones any of us would think to ask. 

And when the heavenly choirs let loose the sound they made! It was the greatest sound the human ear could ever hear, the greatest thing they could ever imagine. That is, until they thought about the words they were saying.

You see, it was not about the concert. The newspaper is not about the paper. The newspaper is about the messages inside of it. And the angel’s song was about the news, the Good News of great joy. It was Good News for them. It was Good News for us over 2,000 years later. Jesus, the Messiah is born!

They got so excited, the shepherds ran to see this thing for themselves, and they told everyone they saw the miracle that we call Christmas.

The shepherds were the first ones to hear that the One they had been waiting on for so long had finally shown up. Many had been waiting so long that they had forgotten that they were waiting, and guessed that this was the way life was. And that message that everything was about to change was the Good News.

Angels shared that Good News from God, and their message is still Good News to us over 2000 years later. 

What is it you think an angel looks like? Does an angel always have wings? Does angel always wear white? Does an angel have long flowing hair? Sometimes. That is how we tend to draw them anyway. But I think that angels can come in all shapes and sizes. Mostly they don’t have wings, I don’t think. I think most of the time, God’s messengers look just like most of us.

Last week I saw an angel. Really. No wings. No flowing hair. In fact, she was not too tall, and she had a really short hair cut. She was a worker at a local store. Now do I think she was from heaven? No more than any of us are, because maybe all of us are. 

But she gave me a message that I needed to hear. 

It was early, really early, last Saturday morning. I had run into the store, already late for what I had to get done. And as I wandered looking for the things I needed I got confused looking in the wrong places. I got frustrated. I got mad. Mostly at myself for being late. I had a whole day of stuff I was in charge of, and I did not have time for this. I finally got checked out and because I was in a hurry I was carrying everything and was rushing to get to my car.

Now the woman’s job was to check receipts and to make sure you got everything you paid for and that you did not have anything that you did not pay for. Because I was in a rush I had put my receipt in my wallet because I normally do not get stopped. Maybe it was because I was rushing. I do not know why she asked me to stop. 

So she asked to see my receipt. And I am so sorry for what happened next. I got frustrated and upset. She said they made her ask, and then I said something not nice. I could tell by the look on her face that I had hurt her. But she paused and politely said, “You have a good day.”

I huffed out to the car, and got everything put away in the trunk. And then it struck me what I had done. And that is when God started talking to me. Like he came to the Shepherds, God’s love is for all of us, but especially those that need it most. And someone who has to work early on a Saturday morning probably needs love, not rudeness. And I decided to do something very hard.

I walked back into the store. I did not care that I was late. This was more important. I went back, and my angel there at the doorway saw me coming and she tensed herself waiting for me to be rude again.

But I went up to her and said, “I was just incredibly rude. You did not deserve that. I was frustrated, and not with you, but I took it out on you. I am so sorry. Will you forgive me?”

That actually surprised her. And that is when my angel smiled. She said, “That has never happened before.” She let me know that she did forgive me. And then she hugged me, and kissed my cheek and said, “Merry Christmas.” 

When the angels sang to the Shepherds it was them saying Merry Christmas. Now when I was rude to the woman doing her job, I treated her like she was less than me. And when she chose to be nice, she chose to be MUCH bigger than I was in that moment. She chose to be an angel, especially to someone who was acting like the Least. She chose to share love even to someone like me.

Even priests can make mistakes, big ones sometimes. And when I chose to think less of myself, I found a way to go and act more like Jesus wants us to act. Humbly. Lovingly. Graciously. She gave me Grace and Love, when I did not deserve it. And that is an angelic message if I ever heard one. Jesus came to give the same message that my angel gave me. We are forgiven. We are loved. And that is what Christmas is. Giving love and grace. And when we do that, maybe we are angels, too.
[Sing] Gloria, gloria, in excelsis Deo.
Merry Christmas! Amen.

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Year A Advent 3 2019 Ember Day

Year A Advent 3, 17 December 2019
St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA
“Ember Days”

Collect for all Christians in their vocations:
Almighty and everlasting God, by whose Spirit the whole body of your faithful people is governed and sanctified: Receive our supplications and prayers, which we offer before you for all members of your holy Church, that in their vocation and ministry they may truly and devoutly serve you; through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Today is the first Ember Day for Advent. What is Ember Day? 

I remember when I was first in process, I remember when my presenting priest asked me, “Have you sent in your Ember Day letter?” My response: “What’s that? And what’s Ember Day?” Well, it is mostly something that is the focuse of those seeking ordination, but in the busy-ness of the season, I thought I would touch base with you about some neat parts of the Church calendar.

Here is what I found:
Three days which occur four times a year: the Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday after St. Lucy's Day (Dec. 13), Ash Wednesday, the Day of Pentecost, and Holy Cross Day (Sept. 14). The name comes from the Latin title Quattuor tempora, meaning "four times." Or from the ancient Anglo-Saxon ymbra  meaning cycle. I will share another idea at the end. In ancient Italy the times (originally three) were associated with sowing, harvest, and vintage, for which one prayed, fasted, and gave alms. Later the four times became occasions for ordination, for which the Christian community prayed and the candidates prepared themselves by prayer and retreat. The BCP appoints proper collects and readings for this observance under the title "For the Ministry (Ember Days), including propers "For those to be ordained," "For the choice of fit persons for the ministry," and "For all Christians in their vocation" (BCP, pp. 256-257, 929).

Ember Days and Ember Weeks, in the Roman Catholic and Anglican churches, four “times” set apart for special prayer and fasting and for ordination of the clergy. The Ember Weeks are the complete weeks following (1) Holy Cross Day (September 14); (2) the Feast of St. Lucy (December 13); (3) the first Sunday in Lent; and (4) Pentecost (Whitsunday). The current practice is to compute the Ember Days directly as the Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday following the third Sunday of Advent, the first Sunday of Lent, Pentecost Sunday, and the third Sunday of September.

The exact origin of the Ember seasons is uncertain. In the early church, they were limited to three and may have been the Christian transformation of pagan festivals. From Rome the observance of the Ember Weeks and Days gradually spread throughout the Western church. On February 17, 1966, Pope Paul VI excluded the Ember Days from the church year as formal days of fasting and abstinence for Roman Catholics.

So was it four seasons in Latin, or cycle in Anglo-Saxon? Here is another idea from Pamela Dolan: 

“In the famous vision found in chapter 6 of the book of Isaiah the prophet encounters God on his throne, attended by seraphim. He is filled with dread until
one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. 7The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: ‘Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.’ 8Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’ And I said, ‘Here am I; send me!’
The live coal that touches Isaiah's lips--might an "ember" be a faint reminder of that? I certainly look forward to future Ember Days, and the opportunities they provide to pause and reflect on where and how (and in whom) I am seeing God, on what areas of my life need some cleansing and refining fire (in other words what are the sins that need to be "blotted out" through confession and absolution), and finally on how faithfully I am answering God's call to me.” source


Sunday, December 15, 2019

Year A Advent 3 2019 Anticipation & Joy

Year A Advent 3, 15 December 2019
St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA
“Anticipation & Joy”

Collect: Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us; and, because we are sorely hindered by our sins, let your bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit, be honor and glory, now and for ever. Amen.

Matthew 11:2-11
When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”
As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written,
‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way before you.’
“Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.”

Waiting can take so long. Ask any child this time of year. Will Christmas ever come? For those of us who know the rest of the story, we know that it will come, and we will have Joy. It is the struggle with Anticipation and Expectations that are the frustration and toil in the waiting. 

Those of us of a certain age, even have an image. Heinz Ketchup bottle tilted, the singular voice of Carly Simon sliding into the words… “An-tic-i-pat-ion. An-tic-i-pa-a-tion, it’s making you wait…” Now in the sales world they had a master stroke. Spin a negative into a positive. Take a complaint, and say, “We meant to do that.” A slow pour ketchup? Only a product as thick and rich would take so long to pour. It is worth the wait.

But I did not come up here today to talk about Ketchup or Carly Simon. Today is Guadete Sunday. The Sunday we focus on the Joy that the waiting is almost over. 

I love this time of year. I love the music. I love the buzz and stir, the excitement is palpable. It seems like everyone is on the same page, we all got the memo. We have much to be thankful for, much to give joy for…

First and foremost the coming of Jesus. Hallelujah! But we have added so much more. 

  • Family. 
  • Community. 
  • Light against the darkening skies. 

It is a festive season and all the best gets lumped in. 

People do not think twice about santa hats or silly sweaters, and people laugh with them, not at them. We enjoy rather than point fingers. 

Our canticle that we read, the Canticle of Mary, proclaims the Joy and Hope and Faith of her, a young teen probably whose faith was greater than the fear of possible judgment, scorn, or even death for shaming her family. She declares the greatness and goodness of God.

Some days faith is easy. We have strong feelings and can shout Hallelujah! We know without a doubt that God is God and God is good. God rules from heaven and all's right with the world! She said: 
My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,my spirit rejoices in God my Savior; for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant.From this day all generations will call me blessed:the Almighty has done great things for me, and holy is his Name.He has mercy on those who fear himin every generation.
This season is a resounding bell of faith. Faith that the shortening days will lengthen. Faith that the darkening moods with lighten. Faith that the wrong shall fail, and the right prevail.

Today’s collect calls us to the strengthened and renewed faith. Let nothing stand in our way of coming to God. Jesus opens the door, and allows us in. We prayed in our Collect for the day:
Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us; and, because we are sorely hindered by our sins, let your bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us; through Jesus Christ our Lord...

I think that is why candles and light are so inextricably bound to this time of year. Light is the symbol of what we are feeling.

Every few years our family goes down to Busch Gardens for Christmastown to see the supposed millions upon millions of lights. We always make sure, despite the cold, to take the Skyride. Swinging in the wind, the gondolas on the cables going from country to country allow us to get a scope on the millions and millions of lights shining. It is a bit overwhelming, but oh so beautiful.

This year we went on the way back from the beach so we could spend the day with my mom. This year was rainy. But a few years ago I remember it was a cold, cold night. I should have had an extra layer on, but I didn’t. At the end of the night, we got in line for our traditional Skyride to end our day. In France, there was no line, we got right on. But at the transfer station in Germany we had to get off and get back on. There was already quite the line there. We waited about 10 minutes, not too long, when the ride suddenly stopped. It just stopped. The employees kept announcing to those way up above the ground to stay in their seats and not worry. It was only a temporary delay.

I was quite glad we were still in the station, not up on the cable out in the wind. What was a fun and enjoyable cap on the evening could have become a long and cold pause on the joy if we had been stuck up there. After 10 or 12 minutes, the ride got going again, and we jumped on not thinking about it. 

I think of the people stuck in the skyride cars, alone, in the dark, waiting. It’s an amusement park. This was supposed to be fun, right? But in the cold and dark they sat alone swinging, seeing the lights far below and far away, and here they were apart. Trying to get to the joy, but something is holding them back. What a perfect metaphor for Advent. Between stations. Christ the King on one end, Christmas on the other, and here we are dangling. We see the lights around, but we are not there yet. We wait. We know the Joy is to be, and in the Anticipation and Expectation we wait. Our Joy is that the cold and wind is almost over and soon we will arrive at our destination, with Joy.

Whenever I mention Joy, I try to remind myself that Joy and Happiness are not the same. There can be Happiness in Joy, but there can be Joy in Sorrow as well. 

I was reminded of that this week when I was preparing for a funeral. The final words I say in the midst of the funeral rite are powerful and starkly juxtaposed with the feelings of most of the people there. A dramatic irony jumps out. Standing about the grave I say these words: 
You only are immortal, the creator and maker of mankind; and we are mortal, formed of the earth, and to earth shall we return. For so did you ordain when you created me, saying, "You are dust, and to dust you shall return."All of us go down to the dust; yet even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.

Happiness comes from the events around us. Joy comes from that deep abiding Hope that is within us, no matter the outward situation. Henri Nouwen described the difference:  Joy is “the experience of knowing that you are unconditionally loved and that nothing – sickness, failure, emotional distress, oppression, war, or even death - can take that love away.”

I think of John in the cell, almost sure never to come out. Alone with his thoughts, with his worries. Surrounded by his call, obsessed with the pull of God to “Prepare the way of the Lord!” We can tell by his worries how focused he was on what he felt God had created him to do. When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

Was he worried for no reason? Was he sinning in his doubts? No. No. No. He was fulfilling his call, driven by it. What I see in John’s doubts are the Accuser at work, going after what we care about most to drive us away from God. That is how the Devil works. Always has. Always will. 

From Eve’s Temptation, to Job’s Trials, to Jonah’s Doubts, to Jesus’ Temptation, we repeatedly see the Accuser, our Enemy, driving us by taking that which we love and are committed to and twisting it. The same is true for you and me. Manipulation has been the same since time immemorial. 

And when we see John in prison, awaiting death, the worries and accusations fly. “You wasted the gifts God gave you! You backed the wrong horse! You are a pathetic waste! You ruined God’s plans for the Messiah!”

And so he was led to ask, “Jesus, are you the One? Or are we to expect another?” John, in his joyful anticipation of the Hope he had hung all his life on, the square he had put all his chips on, the expectation of all the hopes and fears of all the years, he wanted a little assurance. Like the people in the gondola, he was dangling in the dark. 

Now Jesus being Jesus, calls John back to the faith Jesus knew he had. And Jesus being Jesus does not give him a yes or a no. Where’s the faith in that. But Jesus being Jesus quotes Isaiah, a passage of prophecy that both he and John knew so well. Isaiah 35 and Isaiah 61 are put together by this biblical scholar and given to another. This is not a yes or no. It is a “Heck Yeah!”

Jesus is telling John that the prophecies of old are here, reality, being fulfilled. Jesus is saying the proof is in the pudding. Here have a taste!

What Jesus is saying to John is for John to have Hope. Jesus is saying to John to have Joy. And we can, too.

And that is the message Jesus is giving us as well. We still wait. We still have doubts. we dangle in the dark in the cold. We still anticipate. The Accuser still drives us to distraction, twisting our loves, upturning our lives. We still need Joy. And yearly remind ourselves that the God of Power and Might, the God who made heaven and earth, the God who made you and me, chose to come and give us the message himself.

And what would God in the form of a babe have us hear?

You are Loved.

You are Mine.

Life is hard, but Joy can be yours.

You are always welcome home.

Amen. 

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Year A Advent 2 WED 2019 First Love

Year A Advent 2 WEDNESDAY, 11 December 2019
St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA
“First Love”

Revelation 1:17-2:7
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 for ever 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.
‘To the angel of the church in Ephesus write: These are the words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand, who walks among the seven golden lampstands:
‘I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance. I know that you cannot tolerate evildoers; you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them to be false. I also know that you are enduring patiently and bearing up for the sake of my name, and that you have not grown weary. But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. Remember then from what you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent. Yet this is to your credit: you hate the works of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate. Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches. To everyone who conquers, I will give permission to eat from the tree of life that is in the paradise of God.

Matthew 23:1-12 (mentioned, but the main text is Revelation)

This morning we look at those who have fallen away, either in their love or in their actions. The love of God led the Pharisees into a strict life governed by rigid laws. And soon they began to love the legalism more than the one who led them to such a strict lifestyle.

The other reading, from Revelation looks at those who have fallen away for other reasons. The people in the Church in Ephesus did what they were supposed to do, but in the busy-ness of the days they had let go of that passion, that thing that made them fall in love with Jesus in the first place. And the John the Revelator brings up the Nicolaitans, followers of the deacon of Jerusalem Nicholas, one of the first 7 deacons. He lived a life of hedonism and debauchery and taught others to do the same. He was thought and taught his freedom in Christ was there to do “whatever.”

I have often thought of this phrase, “you have abandoned the love you had at first.” It is so hard to keep that first love alive. We grow complacent. We take things for granted. We let go of the little things first, and then we find over days how much we have let slide.
In my younger days, I thought I understood this. I thought I knew what it meant. But with the water that has gone under the bridge and the grey hairs on my temples, I see how easy it is to let things slip. To forego the drive that was our all in all in younger, more vibrant, more loving days.

Now do not project, or assume. My wife and I are fine. But like in all relationships there are cycles and seasons. There are times when stuff got in the way of “us.” The kids. Work. Travel. Life. And when that happens I have to look at this one I have chosen and who chose me and remind myself of the girl this boy could not live without three decades ago. I have to go back to that first love.

My relationship with Christ is all the more so. When life is going crazy, that is when I need to slow down and get away with Christ. When I am hurting, I need to turn to him first, not as a last resort. When I am afraid, I bind myself in his love and Grace and know that he is bigger than anything I face, and even in the face of death itself he is waiting on the other side of that door.
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 for ever and ever; and I have the keys of Death and of Hades.
If I put Christ first, everything else falls into place. Or as Jesus himself put it, “Seek first the Kingdom of God and God’s righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you.”

When we think of this place, our church, it is easy to think of it as the building, and all the upkeep it requires. Our church is not the building. I stand in the pulpit and I see the faces, some happy, some hurting, some attentive, some not. None of those faces are this church; all of them are. But the church is more than the faces. The image we are given today, when we are doing what Christ would have us do, we are a star shining in the hand of Christ, we are a lampstand shining in the darkness. We are Christ’s light, shining in this town. We are a lampstand, set high for all to see. That is what it looks like when we live fully into that first love, when we adore the Beloved, when we are adored by the Beloved. Amen.