Sunday, June 13, 2021

Year B Proper 6 2021 By Faith & Not By Sight

 Year B Proper 6, 13 June 2021

St. James the Less Episcopal Church, Ashland, VA

“By Faith & Not By Sight”


Collect: Keep, O Lord, your household the Church in your steadfast faith and love, that through your grace we may proclaim your truth with boldness, and minister your justice with compassion; for the sake of our Savior Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.


2 Corinthians 5:6-10, 14-17

We are always confident; even though we know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord-- for we walk by faith, not by sight. Yes, we do have confidence, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord. So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him. For all of us must appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each may receive recompense for what has been done in the body, whether good or evil.

For the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them. From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!


Mark 4:26-34

Jesus said, “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.”

He also said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”

With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.


I have shared in sermons that nothing is wasted in the economy of God. I have shared that God takes what we bring, no matter how simple or horrible, and transforms it to his honor and glory. I believe both of those things. Even the most tragic or traumatic can be taken, blessed, broken, and given in new and glorious ways. This does not make it easy or painless, but it does take our suffering and imbue it with meaning.


But today I want to explore another way of thinking on what we do here. Somewhere along the way some have taken to describing faith like it was a commodity, or some special, secret, insider information. “Psst, hey, have you found Jesus?”


But faith is not like that. In our book club this last week, Rachel Held Evans reminded us that, “Scripture does not speak of people who found God. Scripture speaks of people who walked with God.”


God is not playing hide and seek; God invites us to see Godself where we are whenever, wherever that is. Like the prayer at the beginning of our service, God is God of all times and all places. The Psalmist penned:

Where can I go from your spirit?

    Or where can I flee from your presence?

If I ascend to heaven, you are there;

    if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.

If I take the wings of the morning

    and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,

even there your hand shall lead me,

    and your right hand shall hold me fast. [Psalm 139:7-10]


So if finding God is not the problem, what image might we use for our walking with God?


We have a simple one on our campus, and there is one at Richmond Hill, and there are examples in many of our cathedrals, and in holy sites of other religions around the world. Labyrinths, I find, are one of the great spiritual metaphors for our journey. 


Solvitor ambulando is the Latin phrase meaning it is found in walking. Often when I am at a mental impasse, getting up and moving my body gives me the space I need to gain the true focus I have lost. We may yell, “Don’t just stand there, do something!” And sometimes that is exactly what we need. But walking a labyrinth is not there to arrive, walking a labyrinth is there to drive us inside, physically to the center of the labyrinth, and inside ourselves.


One thing I have always loved about the labyrinth discipline when I have used it is to ask a question as I begin. It may be something I struggle with, it may be a dilemma I am facing. But when I have gained an answer when it is Solvitor amblando, when it is solved in the walking, I have to remind myself that whatever I have received was actually already with me, or God chose to provide it when I paused and took time to ask. Labyrinths, metaphorical and physical, are there to drive us inside.


A well-designed labyrinth begins by skirting the center and then sending you out to bring you back in. Like with beginner’s luck, we are provided with a glimpse of how great it could be to arrive at our destination, and how great it will be if we keep on keeping on. The glimpse of the reward is key. Our spiritual life is often like that. In our Gospel reading we are given that as well. Some seeds spring up quickly, but they do not stay the course. Those that do come to fruition.


St. Paul reminds us that “we walk by faith, not by sight.” And that, “For the love of Christ urges us on.” The intentionality of the labyrinth is what we must trust. We will not be lost, we cannot be led astray.


Once again, from Rachel Held Evans:  “The difference between a labyrinth and a maze is that a labyrinth has no dead ends… [S]ome like to say, we make the road by walking, but I believe the journey is more labyrinth than maze. No step in faith is wasted, not by a God who makes all things new.” RHE, Searching for Sunday, p. 180.


No matter where we begin, no matter how dark the road we have trod, we must trust that God will get us where we need to go. It’s not like the old joke about the city slickers who were in a rush for an event, and saw an old farmer on his porch. In desperation they barreled down the drive and asked the farmer if he had heard of their destination. “Yessim,” he replies. “Can you tell us how to get there?” they ask, pleadingly. After a long pause, the farmer looks up, “Well, the way I reckon it, you cain’t get there from here.”


God’s path for us is not like that. Wherever you start from, “nothing can separate you from the love of God in Christ.” Romans 8:39


Once, when I was working at a summer camp, we went on a night hike. We had walked up a fire trail around sunset. On the way back it was a moonless night.  I had a younger hiker walking back next to me. I was a bit notorious for not using a flashlight for walking around camp, preferring to let my vision become acclimated to the dark. My flashlight was still in my pocket for this hike as well. The camper kept asking me to use my flashlight, but I reminded him we had just walked this path in the light, and walking it now was no different, except for us seeing everything more clearly. 


We continued on, and it was pitch black. I could barely see the dirt of the fireroad. By this point the camper was getting more and more scared and asked me how I could know which way to go. And that was when I said it was easy. “When I cannot see the road, or where to put my foot, I look up.” And then he did. There was a gap in the trees, and we could see the stars and the Milky Way above us shining down. We might not see the road, but the light from above marked our way to go. The road created a gap that showed us the way, all we had to do was look up.


There are times in our lives when our way is dark, or the direction to go is unknown. I remember that night. I remember the darkness. But I remember that looking up showed me the way. 


“If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” 


“We walk by faith, not by sight.” 


We can say that because we have walked this way before. It is safe. It may spin us out, but it always gets us where we want to go, where we need to be. Labyrinths are the nature of this life, especially our spiritual life. Anything we need, we already have or God will provide. And if you are fearful and not sure of where to place your next step, don’t stare into the darkness. Look up! Amen

Sunday, June 6, 2021

Year B Proper 5 2021 Divisions and Family

 Year B Proper 5, 6 June 2021

St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA

“Divisions and Family”


Collect: O God, from whom all good proceeds: Grant that by your inspiration we may think those things that are right, and by your merciful guiding may do them; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.


Mark 3:20-35

The crowd came together again, so that Jesus and his disciples could not even eat. When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, “He has gone out of his mind.” And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, “He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.” And he called them to him, and spoke to them in parables, “How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come. But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered.

“Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin”— for they had said, “He has an unclean spirit.”

Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him. A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.” And he replied, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”


It is so good to be back together. It has been so long. I know I feel like I have aged five years since we moved everything online. It is slowly moving back to normal. [For those reading this or watching online, today we are gathering in-person, inside for the first time since March of 2020.]


In that time the world has changed. We are different. We have walked through the valley of the shadow of death, and admittedly sometimes I did fear evil and a bunch of other things. And the storm may no longer be raging, but it is still with us. Pray for India, and Brazil, and all those places which still are being hammered by this pandemic. Many are still in that Valley of Death.


What has made it worse are the divisions, the working against ourselves. Machiavelli preached that the way to power is to Divide and Conquer. It is as old as Sun Tzu and The Art of War, and was practiced by Philip II of Macedonia, Julius Caesar, and Napoleon. A tactic that is as old as human interaction. We have seen it rear its ugly head lately, too, it breaks my heart to say.


Jesus had folks, his own folks, his very family, attempt to do that, too. Now, giving them the benefit of the doubt, they thought it was for his own good. “He is out of his mind,” they said to themselves. And Scribes tried to shut him down saying he was working for Satan. But Jesus responded to the crowd listening to what he thought of divisions, and those who might distract him from his calling.

“How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come. But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered.”

Thankfully we have not let those things or people who might divide us do that to us. We are still here, though the forces of division were substantial.


In the height of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln quoted Jesus here, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” This is true whether we are speaking of our nation, our community, or our church. The axiom remains.


In fact, the phrase that is used in the Greek for when his family thought he was crazy was not “He,” being Jesus, “has gone out of his mind.” The phrase used is “He is beside himself.” Divisions can be internal as well. We can set divisions up and wage war with ourselves. Jesus even spoke to that when he said, “No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.” While Jesus was talking about seeking money, that idea of divided loyalties remains. We just cannot do it. We call it now the Conflict of Interest.


Jesus is accused of divided loyalties, preaching God and serving Satan. And he shows that that just could not be. It makes no practical or logical sense. But when we are divided in our minds, we hurt our cause and ourselves. Singular focus is so needed, as much then as now.


Getting to this point of re-opening has been a slug. No matter which direction we go, whatever decision has been made, there is a group questioning or opposing it. Our actions were no one’s first choice. But we did the best we could, with the information we had, within the parameters set by those in authority over us whether ecclesial or governmental.


Living in that struggle has been a stealing of focus for many of us, and like I said, being divisive in one’s mind keeps us from doing what needs to be done. A friend of mine made that tension clear in a recent Facebook post. I was already well into my sermon writing when I saw it, but it gives some handles to the issues at hand surprisingly well.


I have had trouble putting the tension I feel in many local churches into words but I think I came to a realization today (and one that many of you have probably come to a long time ago)....

Many see church as an escape from the "real" world and do not want to see that change. Others are pushing the church to speak more deeply into issues happening in the real world. These two realities are pushing on one another and the tension is draining.

[Facebook Post by Mark Snipes, 2 June 2021]


What is church for us? A fueling station?  A hospital? An escape from the outside world? A training school for sacred living? An embassy of the Kingdom of God? How we think of the Church drives how we treat it and one another.


As I said a couple of weeks ago, the Church is not a building. The Ekklesia  is the “called-out-ones,” but even then we have different views of what that means.


I think the Church is all those things I mentioned, and at different times it means different things for each and every one of us. And as we travel through the seasons of our lives, we are birthed, and we learn, and we grow, and we serve, and we eat, and we share, and we heal, and we die. It meets us where we are, and it helps us get to where we need to be. Paul described himself and his ministry like that, almost a vision for where the church can go.

For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though I myself am not under the law) so that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law) so that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings. [I Corinthians 9:19-23]

Jesus, like Paul, was focused on the outcome. The process was called into question. His own family, the Scribes, the Pharisees, and so many questioned what he was doing and what it could lead to eventually. But he knew what his calling and purpose was. Even to the point of redefining what for most of us is our most intimate relationships. 

Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him. A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.” And he replied, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”

We used words for those who are with us on this journey, for those who are with us in this Church. We are a Church Family. And our family is now scattered. Some are comfortable regathering, some are most definitely not. Some want us to rush back to normal, and others think we are moving too quickly. But wherever we are, here or staying apart, we are still One, One Body in Christ. And eventually we will all be able to regather. Our body has experienced a trauma, and we may have lost some feeling for a while. It will return. It takes time and patience to heal. Like it takes time for a seed to become a plant, there are things taking place, miraculous and magical.


Friends, sisters and brothers in Christ, we will emerge from this past period. We have much to be thankful for, yes even in these times. We celebrate that we can be together. We celebrate that we even are. I thank God that we can begin the process, and may we do so boldly and in faith that God has been with us, and will be, all along the way. Amen. 



Wednesday, May 19, 2021

Year B Easter 7 WED 2021 Like Melchizedek

Year B Easter 7 WEDNESDAY, 19 May 2021

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

"Like Melchizedek"

Hebrews 7:1-17


This "King Melchizedek of Salem, priest of the Most High God, met Abraham as he was returning from defeating the kings and blessed him" and to him Abraham apportioned "one-tenth of everything." His name, in the first place, means "king of righteousness" next he is also king of Salem, that is, "king of peace." Without father, without mother, without genealogy, having neither beginning of days nor end of life, but resembling the Son of God, he remains a priest forever. See how great he is! Even Abraham the patriarch gave him a tenth of the spoils. And those descendants of Levi who receive the priestly office have a commandment in the law to collect tithes from the people, that is, from their kindred, though these also are descended from Abraham. But this man, who does not belong to their ancestry, collected tithes from Abraham and blessed him who had received the promises. It is beyond dispute that the inferior is blessed by the superior. In the one case, tithes are received by those who are mortal; in the other, by one of whom it is testified that he lives. One might even say that Levi himself, who receives tithes, paid tithes through Abraham, for he was still in the loins of his ancestor when Melchizedek met him. Now if perfection had been attainable through the levitical priesthood-- for the people received the law under this priesthood-- what further need would there have been to speak of another priest arising according to the order of Melchizedek, rather than one according to the order of Aaron? For when there is a change in the priesthood, there is necessarily a change in the law as well. Now the one of whom these things are spoken belonged to another tribe, from which no one has ever served at the altar. For it is evident that our Lord was descended from Judah, and in connection with that tribe Moses said nothing about priests. It is even more obvious when another priest arises, resembling Melchizedek, one who has become a priest, not through a legal requirement concerning physical descent, but through the power of an indestructible life. For it is attested of him, "You are a priest forever, according to the order of Melchizedek."

Luke 10:17-24

The seventy returned with joy, saying, "Lord, in your name even the demons submit to us!" He said to them, "I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning. See, I have given you authority to tread on snakes and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy; and nothing will hurt you. Nevertheless, do not rejoice at this, that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven." At that same hour Jesus rejoiced in the Holy Spirit and said, "I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows who the Son is except the Father, or who the Father is except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him." Then turning to the disciples, Jesus said to them privately, "Blessed are the eyes that see what you see! For I tell you that many prophets and kings desired to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it."


Sending out the 70, Jesus trusted the Spirit to do the Spirit’s job. The Spirit precedes us in our ministry. The Spirit goes ahead and paves the way. The Spirit opens people’s hearts and minds to the words we will speak, or will divert them if they will hinder what God wants to be done. I love this story, and the way Jesus celebrates their successes is so joy filled. Listen again to his exuberance:

“I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning. See, I have given you authority to tread on snakes and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy; and nothing will hurt you. Nevertheless, do not rejoice at this, that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.”
And...
“Blessed are the eyes that see what you see! For I tell you that many prophets and kings desired to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it.”

Jesus wants us to be a part of what was and is to be done. He did not come only to save us, but to enact and implement the Kingdom of God on earth. That involves us, as unworthy as we are, as ignorant as we are. Jesus even says as much. He says we are like “infants” when we go out. That is not an insult, but an assessment of where we are. And he calls us to maturity in him, and enables us to do what we do, and one do we will see “face to face” as I Corinthians 13 promises. But we have to start somewhere, thanks be to God.

We have this because Jesus is who he is. He receives from the Father and hands on to us what he receives. In the Hebrews passage, we see him in this lineage of the eternal priesthood, calling us to trust in him fully.

This obscure reference to Melchizedek is to the King of Salem, the walled city which we think later became Jerusalem. Abraham was beholding to him, and gave him a tithe, 10%, of his spoils from war. Melchizedek shared bread and wine, mirroring the Eucharist, and the early church latched onto this image of a priest without known lineage as a forerunner of Jesus.

This metaphorical ideal is fascinating and beautiful. And it is on this security and authority that we lean as we head out. We head out to not change a situation, but to transform the world, to bring to fruition the Kingdom of God on earth.

We do this through what we focus on for this Sunday, the Spirit, the Advocate, the Comforter, the God-in-Us. We stand secure because of this eternal priest pleading on our behalf, one who is in the high order of Melchizedek. There is no stained and unworthy priest, but one who is flawless and blameless and perfect. Thanks be to God!

Friends, I stand with you, in need of this. I am with you, because I stand in need of Jesus’ love and grace, as do we all. I look forward to Sunday. I look forward to what is to be. I look forward to this remembrance of the difference in me and the difference I can make in the world because of the coming of the Holy Spirit. Thanks be to God! Amen

Wednesday, May 12, 2021

Year B Easter 6 WED 2021 Worry Not

 Year B Easter 6 WEDNESDAY, 12 May 2021

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

"Worry Not"

A Reading (Lesson) from Luke 12:22-31

He said to his disciples, "Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing. Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds! And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? If then you are not able to do so small a thing as that, why do you worry about the rest? Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will he clothe you-- you of little faith! And do not keep striving for what you are to eat and what you are to drink, and do not keep worrying. For it is the nations of the world that strive after all these things, and your Father knows that you need them. Instead, strive for his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well.



Who here worries?


If you are not raising your hand, you're telling a fib, and you shouldn’t fib even in virtual church.


Whenever we have an angel or God show up in the Bible, most of the time they start with the phrase, “Fear Not.” In fact, I have read that it is used in the Bible 365 times, one for every day of the year. Now, I have not done the homework to check that out, but it is a good quote. We’ll go with it.


Some say, to err is human. But I think it is even more honest to think, that to worry is human. We worry because we have these wonderful brains. And our brains think in stories. We are the storytelling creature. And when we worry it is our brains telling us a story about what could go wrong, a negative story.


But here are some statements about Worry, and let’s explore them.


“Worry is the Misuse of Imagination.”


Now think about it. If worry is the negative story we tell ourselves, what if we did the opposite? And every time we started to tell ourselves what could go wrong, instead we told ourselves what could go right. We imagine the positive. We visualize things going well. And then we can ask ourselves, what can I do to make things go well? And then we can do those things, and that positive visualization can come true!


So when we do not do the things that we need to do to make the good things happen, worry comes back…


“Worry is the emotional response to not being prepared.” 


So how do we not have that feeling? We need to… BE PREPARED! That’s right. We need to do what needs to be done.


A story is told about a college professor who was trying to teach the lesson of getting the big things done, then minor things, then filling in the other stuff that life throws us. So he got a big glass jar, a pail of rocks, a pail of sand, and a pail of water. And he asked, “Do you think this will all fit in the glass jar?” Not one student did. And he said, “Not if we just pour it all in.” So he carefully placed in all the rocks. Then he carefully poured in some of the sand, shook the jar to fill in the cracks, poured some more, shook, until all the sand was in. And then he asked, “Is it full?” Now the students were catching on. And he poured the water in filling the tiny spaces between the sand, which was between the rocks, all in the glass jar.


When I plan out my days, I have to do it like the professor. What are the things that I HAVE TO DO? Or the things that CANNOT BE MOVED? I have to put those in first. Then I can fill in the rest of my day with things I would like to do, or could get done, or I will find fun and energizing. And then I pour in the things that life throws at me, phone calls, emails, Facebook, whatever. But the rocks have to be first. When I do that I do not have to worry. I have taken care of my responsibilities.


And, “Worry is not your Responsibility.” 


Responsibility means that you have the ability to Respond. There are things that you can do, and probably should. But there are things that you cannot do, should not do, or are beyond your control. THEY ARE NOT YOUR RESPONSIBILITY! You can only do the things you can.


When I played tuba at the University of Richmond, my music professor had me playing some really hard parts. I got overwhelmed! I looked at the whole song, and thought, “I cannot play this!” But he said, look at one measure. “Can you play that?” Most I could, but some were really hard with hard rhythms. He said, then do not look at the measure, look at one beat. “Can you play that?” Yes, I could. He said, “When you are feeling overwhelmed and you have too much to handle, break it down into the smallest part you can until you can do it. Conquer that, then do the next thing, and so on, and so on, and so on.” I have taken that lessen with me the rest of my life.


Whenever I have a challenge, and it is my responsibility, I break it down into small manageable parts. And I do it one part at a time. How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time!


“Worry is letting my emotion, my fear, into the Driver’s Seat.” 


In one of my favorite books, there is a phrase that is repeated. “Fear is the Mind Killer.” What makes us worry is our mind. But when we let worry drive the car, our brain shuts down. Fear kills the mind. When I choose to recognize that there is fear, but I do not let it take charge, I can still think, act, and respond. I get to stay in charge, and the fear just hangs out until I can deal with that. Fear is a warning system, a good one that came from years of evolutionary grooming. Bravery is, recognizing the fear, not letting it rule the day, and doing what has to be done.


In closing, Crises do happen. Bad things do happen. Remember Jesus said, “Today has enough troubles for today.” Troubles do come along, but when they do I can do these things:

I can be in the present, not worrying about the future and what MIGHT happen, but I can do what I can right NOW. And that is what I focus on.

I do what I can. That is my responsibility, nothing more, and nothing less.

I respond as I can.

And then I let the rest go. It is not my responsibility.


Don’t let Worry win. Or as all those angels put it, “Fear not!” Or as Jesus put it, “Do not worry about your life.” Amen


Sunday, May 9, 2021

Year B Easter 6 2021 Abide

 Year B Easter 6, 9 May 2021

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

“Abide”


Collect: O God, you have prepared for those who love you such good things as surpass our understanding: Pour into our hearts such love towards you, that we, loving you in all things and above all things, may obtain your promises, which exceed all that we can desire; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.


John 15:9-17

Jesus said to his disciples, “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.

“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.”


Abiding is a lost art. I must admit. I do not abide well. I have a hard time sitting still, much less abiding. But Jesus is clear. Abide.


“Abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love.”


If we need to abide, then we may as well abide someplace nice. And in the love of Jesus things are pretty swell, and I cannot imagine anywhere better.


We all have abided. It is very apt that today is Mother’s Day. And each and every one of us has been born, and therefore must have a mother. Thank God for Mothers. I am always reticent to mention Mother’s Day because for some it causes such pain. But this year I am making an exception because the analogy is so apt, I mention Mother’s Day because we all have one or we could not be here. 


Berke Breathed, the cartoonist who drew and wrote Bloom County for years, wrote a children’s book named “Mars Needs Moms.” Disney actually made a movie from it. Things were crazy on Mars, and the martians were wanting structure out of their chaos. So they kidnapped the mothers of earth. In it a child, who had just wished he did not have a mother. She was a “bellowing broccoli bully and a carrot-cuddling cuckoo” who made him do the things he needed to do. Well, Milo, the main character finds a way to the red planet to rescue his mom and all the moms.  In the rescue, he almost dies and it is his mother who jumps in to sacrifice herself for the love of her child. No question. No hesitation. No regret. He had abided in her for nine months, and there was no other consideration. Abiding is like that. It goes beyond the rational. It goes beyond the word we call love. Abiding is finding a home where all that is needed is given, freely, no strings attached. And the feeling is more than cozy, more than home-y, it is indescribable. It abides.


Abide in me, as I abide in the Father, Jesus urges. It reminded me of an interesting fact I heard. Women, all women alive, were once in their grandmother, in a way. Stay with me here. Women are born with all the eggs they will ever have in their ovaries. Okay, so that means they were in their mother. Yes, but when your mother was born, the egg that would become half of you was in your grandmother. So the chain of women goes deep. Grandmother births the mother who is born with the egg that becomes the daughter, and the son, too. We are fearfully and wonderfully made, the Psalmist says and biology confirms here.


When the egg is fertilized, it must snuggle into the womb to live. It must abide. It snuggles in and the magic happens. The placenta is grown and draws nourishment and oxygen from the mother. The embryo grows into the fetus in the 8th week since fertilization, and the abiding is truly established.


The mutuality and interplay is amazing, and fascinating, and so very fragile.


Things can go wrong, and the Abiding can be disrupted or prevented. It is true in the Parable of the Sower and how the seeds grow, it is true in how embryos snuggle in, and it is true in our Abiding in Jesus.  


Jesus tells us how to abide in him and the result.


“If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.”


If we keep his commandments, we will abide in his love. And if we abide in his love, our joy will be complete. That is what Jesus wants. That is what I hope and pray we all want.


Think about it. Why do our parents tell us what to do? Most of the time it is for our own good. Most of the time, it is to keep us healthy, happy, and content. Most parents are not out to hurt or harm us. Most parents want what is best, but all parents have to say, “No!”


These commandments come down, not to enslave, ensnarl, or belittle us, but to save us, enrich us, and bemuse us. They say “No!” and pronounce commandments because they love us and care for our well-being. But so often it takes us becoming a parent to truly grasp the immensity of that.


Jesus commands us because he wants us to have the fullness of his joy as we abide in him.


And as we abide in him, we do not try and get our sustenance from somewhere else. When an embryo is gaining everything from its umbilical, how silly would it be for it to be trying to get fed from somewhere else. If we are truly abiding we do not think of anywhere else. 


God wants us to be joyfilled. God wants our complete joy. Not halfway. Not three quarters. God wants us to be filled to the brim and overflowing, so our cup can “runneth over.”


And as I say this, I always have to add the caveat, do not confuse joy with happiness. Things make us happy or unhappy. Situations, pleasures, and entertainments.


Joy comes from within, no matter our situation. Joy is our appreciation of who we are, and whose we are. Joy is the attitude of gratitude for all that we have been given, and all that we have been enabled to do. Happiness is a feeling, while Joy is a choice and the byproduct of Abiding.


And God wants us to choose to abide, and in so doing, God wants our Joy to be complete.


Coen Brother movies are a favorite, always so rich and profound, even their comedies. And one of their most notorious, speaks of the Dude. And in it the Dude rises above the problems of this world, because like he says, “The Dude abides.”


My prayer for all of us, is that we will be more than guests. We will make ourselves at home, snuggled in, safe and warm, for now and always. Amen. 

 


Friday, April 23, 2021

Year B Easter 4 2021 List of the Beloved

 Year B Easter 4, 25 April 2021

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

“List of the Beloved”


Collect: O God, whose Son Jesus is the good shepherd of your people: Grant that when we hear his voice we may know him who calls us each by name, and follow where he leads; who, with you and the Holy Spirit, lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.


John 10:11-18

Jesus said, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.”


In preparing for today’s sermon, like I do every week, I pasted the Gospel message into a document. I do the Collect, too, as between the two I usually find my inspiration for the message. Well, the grammar check immediately underlined Jesus’ statement “I am the good shepherd.” Grammar Check did not like that at all. It asked me if I wanted to change the definite article, THE, to the indefinite article, A. I declined. And that is what this passage is about. Am I part of the flock of Jesus Christ the Good Shepherd, or not? Is he “a good shepherd” to me, or is he “THE good shepherd” to me. That is the question. Each day we all, myself included, answer that with how I live my life.


These verses immediately come after my favorite verse in Scripture where Jesus says that he came that we might have life, and have it abundantly. Scarcity says, “Look how little there is!” Abundance declares, “Look how much we have!” During Coronatide, I think that is one of the big differences in people’s attitudes. Scarcity versus Abundance. Much more than optimism versus pessimism. Abundance lets us be thankful, even when what we have may seem meager to those outside.


There have been a lot of things that have kept me going in the days of isolation and separation. For many months I collected and shared silly memes and jokes. That was fun. We started cooking some wonderful meals at home, and Stephanie’s pizza crusts have reached unimaginable levels of perfection. We also started watching a movie a night. I have a pretty extensive movie collection, but we decided to have it come to an end on Wednesday. We thought pretty hard because it had been such an intentional act, and we had to be pretty disciplined to keep it going and not repeat ourselves. We decided to close it down with Oscar winners for Best Picture. So we ended with the best of the best of the best. After 400 movies you have to do something for the movie to stand out. We have seen some good ones, but I decided that for our final movie we would watch what I believe to be one of the most powerful movies ever made, Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List


I have been to a few of the monstrous concentration camps in Germany in my travels in younger days. I have never made my pilgrimage to Auschwitz, yet. One day I must. But at the camps I felt numb. I could not respond. I was overwhelmed to the point of shutting down emotionally. But this movie was always a catharsis for me, allowing me to give in to those feelings and vent them, mostly through tears. Streams of tears, in fact.


It was the same way this week. At the point in the movie where Schindler and Izak Stern his accountant make the list where each name is the life of someone that Schindler is saving, buying them with bribes to the Nazi SS, redeeming them from the death camps with his own personal fortune. Schindler calls out his employees’ names, one... 

by one…

by one.


Each name a life. Each name one of his own. He is a Good Shepherd. They are walking through a literal Valley of the Shadow of Death as the Psalm invokes, and he is with them each and every step of the way. And as I watched the movie, the words of Christ came to mind: 

I know my own and my own know me.

I lay down my life for the sheep.

Oskar Schindler knew his flock and did what had to be done to save their very lives from the nightmare of the Nazi Holocaust.


Izak Stern when the list is finishes holds it up. “The list is an absolute good. The list is life. All around its margins lies the gulf.” I know my own… Schindler knew his own, and called them each by name.


The Nazis, a very organized evil, made lists of those whom they killed. Schindler and Stern made a list of life. The gulf between that monstrosity and this small hope is and always will be there. But the movie also quotes the Talmud, the Jewish commentaries on Scripture, “If you save one life, it is as if you save the world entire.” 


I hear an echo of that when Jesus says, “When you have done it unto the least of these you have done it unto me.”


Or when Mother Teresa said, “We can do no great things, only small things with great love.”


Friends, we are all given choices in this life. But as Joshua called on the people of God, “Choose you this day whom you will serve. As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” Joshua 24:15


And as the Grammar Check demanded, is it “a good shepherd” or “the good shepherd.” Little did I realize that when asked this it was truly a philosophical and theological conundrum.


Oskar Schindler was a scoundrel, a skunk, and a cheat most of his life. But once, when it mattered the most, he made a decision that saved the world, or at least his small corner of it. May we do the same.  We can do no great things, only small things with great love. If you save one life, it is as if you save the world entire.


“I know my own and my own know me,” Jesus said. Oskar Schindler put all his peoples’ names on a list, and gave it to the Nazis. What also struck me at the end of the movie, knowing that he would be on the run after the war was over, his people made a list, a letter that each of them signed declaring that he was a righteous man and not a criminal and war profiteer. His sheep knew him, too. And there was another Schindler’s List, one declaring him a righteous man.



It is a comforting thought that Jesus knows each of our names, and he calls us his own. He knows us, and as we grow in Christ we know him. We know his voice when we hear it in Scripture, in a word from a stranger or friend, on the wind, maybe. But when we hear his voice, we know it is him. As we prayed in the Collect this morning: O God, whose Son Jesus is the good shepherd of your people: Grant that when we hear his voice we may know him who calls us each by name, and follow where he leads.


He knows our name, but because he loves us he thinks of us each and every one as his Beloved. Agapetos, beloved in the Greek. Like we call our loved ones, dear, or honey, or sweetie, Jesus calls us Beloved. He loved us to death, even death on cross. It cannot be more clear. It cannot be more plain. Jesus is THE GOOD SHEPHERD. And Jesus has a list, too. And his list…


His list is in the Book of Life and our names are there written clearly for all to see throughout eternity. And I can think of no greater place for my name to be. Thanks be to God! Amen


Wednesday, April 21, 2021

Year B Easter 3 WED 2021 You Gotta Try This

 Year B Easter 3 WEDNESDAY, 21 April 2021

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

“You Gotta Try This”

Collect: O God, whose blessed Son made himself known to his disciples in the breaking of bread: Open the eyes of our faith, that we may behold him in all his redeeming work; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

1 John 5:1-12

Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the parent loves the child. By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments. For the love of God is this, that we obey his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome, for whatever is born of God conquers the world. And this is the victory that conquers the world, our faith. Who is it that conquers the world but the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God? This is the one who came by water and blood, Jesus Christ, not with the water only but with the water and the blood. And the Spirit is the one that testifies, for the Spirit is the truth. There are three that testify: the Spirit and the water and the blood, and these three agree. If we receive human testimony, the testimony of God is greater; for this is the testimony of God that he has testified to his Son. Those who believe in the Son of God have the testimony in their hearts. Those who do not believe in God have made him a liar by not believing in the testimony that God has given concerning his Son. And this is the testimony: God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life.

Luke 4:38-44

After leaving the synagogue he entered Simon's house. Now Simon's mother-in-law was suffering from a high fever, and they asked him about her. Then he stood over her and rebuked the fever, and it left her. Immediately she got up and began to serve them. As the sun was setting, all those who had any who were sick with various kinds of diseases brought them to him; and he laid his hands on each of them and cured them. Demons also came out of many, shouting, "You are the Son of God!" But he rebuked them and would not allow them to speak, because they knew that he was the Messiah. At daybreak he departed and went into a deserted place. And the crowds were looking for him; and when they reached him, they wanted to prevent him from leaving them. But he said to them, "I must proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God to the other cities also; for I was sent for this purpose." So he continued proclaiming the message in the synagogues of Judea.



My family has a funny habit. Yours probably does, too. When we go out and try something new, if it is good, we make all the yummy sounds. If it is really good, we share bites with each other. And usually with the words, “You have got to try this!” Often while a spoon or fork is approaching their mouths. When something is that good, I know for me, I have to share it. I have to let someone else know. The savor is twice as fine when it is shared.

Some things are just too good not to share. And sometimes things are so good, they have to move on. And that is what we see here today. 

Peter took Jesus home. He was so beloved by Peter, he took Jesus home to his mother-in-law, little did he realize that Jesus would end up healing her. 

The demons knew a good thing when they saw it. They declared that Jesus was “the Son of God.” He had to silence them. 

Then when he tried to be alone, to get away and recharge his batteries, those who became enamored with him tried to bring him back to heal and teach, he had to decline. He could not set down roots. He had so little time to pull things together, so little time to make the idea of the Kingdom of God reality. He was too good to stay.

I wish Jesus were here today. We could use some healing. Yesterday’s news out of Minneapolis was huge. After the largest protest movement in history, yes history, we see a verdict many hoped for and many did not expect. Some call it justice. Others do not. 

With the law enforcement folks I have spoken with, they have shared how no training could have taught the officer to do that, especially for that length of time. I know that many of my African-American brothers and sisters feel a sense of relief and hope, and I thank God for that. I know I thanked God for the decision given. But I also know that we need Jesus’ healing all the more, and the divisions are deep.

Taste and see that the Lord is good, the Psalmist tells us. I pray for that for all God’s children. I want us all to drink deep and be able to say, “You have got to try this!” with all the benefits and opportunities this land yields. May it be so. Amen