Thursday, October 21, 2021

Year B Proper 24 2021 Shrine Mont Parish Retreat

Year B Proper 24, 17 October 2021

St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland Virginia

Shrine Mont Parish Retreat


Collect: Almighty and everlasting God, in Christ you have revealed your glory among the nations: Preserve the works of your mercy, that your Church throughout the world may persevere with steadfast faith in the confession of your Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.


Hebrews 5:1-10

Every high priest chosen from among mortals is put in charge of things pertaining to God on their behalf, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins. He is able to deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, since he himself is subject to weakness; and because of this he must offer sacrifice for his own sins as well as for those of the people. And one does not presume to take this honor, but takes it only when called by God, just as Aaron was.

So also Christ did not glorify himself in becoming a high priest, but was appointed by the one who said to him,

“You are my Son, today I have begotten you”;

as he says also in another place,

“You are a priest forever, according to the order of Melchizedek.”

In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him, having been designated by God a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek.


Mark 10:35-45

James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to Jesus and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” And he said to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?” And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” They replied, “We are able.” Then Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.”

When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”


As a teacher and as a member of the clergy I have been asked to write a lot of reference letters. It comes with both jobs. As someone who has had to hire and supervise folks, I have had to read a lot, too.


But imagine if you got one like this:


To Whom It May Concern:

I would like to thank you for considering me. Since my earliest days, I have been very impressed with my accomplishments, blown away by my successes, but most of all, I have been moved by my humility. 


It is not appropriate to recommend oneself. It just is not done. Going back to our Hebrews reading, it begins:

Every high priest chosen from among mortals is put in charge of things pertaining to God on their behalf, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins. He is able to deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, since he himself is subject to weakness; and because of this he must offer sacrifice for his own sins as well as for those of the people. And one does not presume to take this honor, but takes it only when called by God...


One does not presume to take on this honor. Know for this passage to make sense, we need to understand and this obscure character Melchizadek, the King of Salem, which was later to become Jerusalem. His name means, “My King is Righteousness.” Salem later became Jeru-Salem, so we know it reappears. Abram submitted to him, giving him a tenth of what he had. And Melchizadek brought out bread and wine and shared it with Abram. This imagery is not lost on us. As Christians it cannot be. We see a form of Christ is all of this. It is no surprise that in the Book of Hebrews the imagery of Melchizadek would be applied to Jesus Christ. And Christ did not take the honor upon himself, but was given it to do what he was called to do.


James and John, the sons of Zebedee, wanted the seats of honor. They recommended themselves like in that ridiculous letter I made up. They wanted the seats of honor. But we cannot commend ourselves, nor can we declare ourselves righteous.


Honor is something that is given, something bestowed, it is not taken. Honor is received, never obtained. Just like the Rich Young Ruler, he that he could do something or things to “inherit” eternal life, like it was something he could earn. Eternal life is a gift, and that is why we call it Grace. Honor is the same way. It is given to us. Not something we can earn by “deserving it."


Friends, it is Discipleship and Service that give us honor. It is what makes us honorable. James and John wanted the parade with the struggle. They wanted the 21-gun salute with the sacrifice. To be honored, we have to do the simple discipline, day-in, day-out. It is not “sexy” to the ways of this world, with our microwave ovens and fast-food drive-thrus. But that daily, repetitive discipline is what makes all the difference. Sure sometimes it is boring, but the attention to detail and the intentional practice enables us to be ready for when it is needed the most.


Let me remind you of a story that most of us know, but may have forgotten the details. On January 15, 2009, USAirways flight 1549 took off from LaGuardia airport and collided with a flock of geese. Both engines of the Airbus 320 failed simultaneously 90 seconds into take-off. If you have never flown out of LaGuardia, you take off over water, and this is the worst possible scenario. They were informed by air traffic controllers to go directly to Teterboro Airport 10 miles away. The pilot informed them that they were “unable” to make it to Teterboro, emphasis on Unable.


He simply and calmly said, “We’re gonna be in the Hudson.”


Captain Chesley Burnett Sullenberger, “Sully” to his friends and all who knew him, proceeded to land, if “land” is the right word, his plane safely on the Hudson River, flat on the water so that it remained afloat. He landed it deadstick, NO POWER, after missing the George Washington Bridge. Have you ever seen how big the George Washington Bridge is? While gliding a jetliner, “Sully” did all this deadstick. Things moved quickly. All 150 passengers evacuated into the cold water in January. There were mostly minor injuries, one passenger with two broken legs, but all of them lived and got off safely. All five crew members lived. The last one off the plane was Sully, after he had gone up and down the aisle two times, checking everything to make sure everyone was safe.


According to all who knew him, Sully was a “by the book” pilot, having been a fighter pilot, and then having had a long career as a commercial pilot. He was a mentor to younger co-pilots, always running scenarios so they could be there best. “If this happens, what do you do?” He was doing this internally as well.


And after a lifetime of this small, intentional, daily discipline he was fully prepared for this 90 seconds. He had lived his life for such a time as this. When later FAA investigators tried to prove pilot error, it went on to show that after 40 tries, and knowing what was to happen and when, they finally were able to land at Teterboro in the simulator once. Sully saved everyone in the moment, with no warning. Sully was born for this moment.


He won accolades, hailed by celebrities and politicians. He was honored by all of us. It was truly called a miracle. A few days later he was a guest of honor at President Obama's inauguration and a guest on David Letterman where he received a standing ovation from everyone in the audience. They applauded for all of us. But Sully did not want honor or accolades. He wanted to do his job the best he could do it. As we said in our Hebrews reading: One does not presume to take on this honor. 


Honor cannot be claimed, it is given. 


Two quotes from Sully, and while speaking of business and leadership, it is so applicable to our our daily walk in faith:

  • “Nothing can fully prepare you for a crisis. But investing in a lifelong learning and growing your skillset can equip you with the necessary tools to succeed.”

  • “We cannot fully reflect on the great deeds we do in our lives. We must appreciate the smaller daily deeds as well. Those are what add up to a life well-lived.”


 Just like in the Parable of the Talents of Jesus, if we cannot be faithful in the small, we cannot be trusted with the big.




But we all can pray. We all can read our Bible. We all can love and take care of our neighbors. It is these small, day-in, day-out tasks of loving obedience which make us who Christ would have us be. We all can do it. Will we?

Amen. 

Wednesday, October 13, 2021

Year B Proper 23 WED 2021 When To Be Afraid

 Year B Proper 23 WEDNESDAY, 13 October 2021

St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA

“When To Be Afraid”


Collect: Lord, we pray that your grace may always precede and follow us, that we may continually be given to good works; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.


Matthew 10:24-33

Jesus said: “A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master; it is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher, and the slave like the master. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household! 

“So have no fear of them; for nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known. What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops. Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. And even the hairs of your head are all counted. So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows. 

“Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven; but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven.”


Yesterday I was meeting with someone and they brought up that so much of our society is seething with fear. I had to agree. We are being conditioned by so many things to fear our neighbor, our brothers and sisters. God help us. God forgive us.


Jesus speaks to what we should do, and of what we should REALLY be afraid. When I was a teacher, I tended to be strict. I was strict, not to be mean. Far from it. I was strict because the kids in my charge were not able to process what was appropriate, or helpful, or dangerous. We say no to toddlers so that they do not burn their hands on the stove. They do not have the experience to know that you avoid a hot stove. They cannot imagine or fathom it. They do not know what to be afraid of.


At Romeos, one person mentioned how one of our recently baptized came out after their baptism, and were set free in the library. They made a beeline for the fire alarm on the wall. It was bright. It was red. It was SO ATTRACTIVE! What made it noticeable to adults made it so attractive to a toddler. They did not know what would happen, and thankfully the adults stepped in to say, “NO!”


When we are younger and inexperienced, life has not yet prepared us for what we need to truly be concerned about. When I was a teacher, my students were the same as those toddlers. I knew what was safe and what was not, what skills they needed to succeed and what could be ignored. I had to be the frontal lobe for them, the decision making part of the brain because that is the last part of the brain, particularly in males, that develops. The male brain is not fully developed in most boys till they are 24 years old. And if we cannot be afraid of what we should be, then we need to be afraid of other things that protect us. That is why I was strict. I loved my charges enough to for that purpose; if they could not be afraid of what they should be, they could be afraid of me.


Jesus put it this way in our reading this morning: “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” We are so concerned about taking care of this mortal coil that we may be ignoring our immortal one.


Thankfully Christ came to enlighten and forewarn us, to teach us another way. And the Church came so that we could do the same for our current generations. And because of that, Jesus can honestly say: “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. And even the hairs of your head are all counted. So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.” 


God loves us. God hopes the best for us. God does not want us to be afraid, and has prepared for us the way of life. Thanks be to God! Amen

Sunday, October 10, 2021

Year B Proper 23 2021 "More than 'Just Enough'"

 Year B Proper 23, 10 October 2021

St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA

“More Than ‘Just Enough’”


Collect: Lord, we pray that your grace may always precede and follow us, that we may continually be given to good works; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

Mark 10:17-31

As Jesus was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.’” He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.

Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” They were greatly astounded and said to one another, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”

Peter began to say to him, “Look, we have left everything and followed you.” Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”


As a middle school teacher I got so tired of the question, “Is this going to be on the test?” It was another way of saying, “What is the least amount I can do and skirt through?” It is much the same way we set up our relationship with God, at times.


“Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.”


A strange response from Jesus. If Jesus, as I envision him, is not good, what hope do I have? Hold that thought, put a pin in it; we are going to come back to it.

And then Jesus goes through the listing of the commandments. Some of the biggies of the Thou Shalt Nots. Murder, Adultery, Bearing False Witness, Theft, Defrauding, Not Honoring Your Parents. These are still so important that we still use and teach them. We have them inscribed on the wall for all of us to see every Sunday. 


The young man said he had done all of these things since his youngest days. And then comes one of my favorite verses in Scripture.  “Jesus, looking at him, loved him…” That is what Grace looks like, my friends. Whenever we do a ministry, we need to do it through love. Jesus loved this young man. He wanted him to succeed.


The young man was so fixated on doing things right that he had missed the whole point. He had done right, but he wasn’t right, and he knew it. God obviously wants us to do good. That would be silly to think otherwise. But VASTLY MORE IMPORTANT than doing good, is being right with God.


Whenever we learn a new skill, we focus on getting the details right. We obsess, or at least I do. Did I do this right? Did I get that okay? Should it be this way or that. I get so intent on the steps that I often have to take a step back and see the big picture. What is the point in the first place?

Over COVID, I learned to make sausage gravy for biscuits. An occasional treat, and it was and is comfort food. I would get it when I would go out. But during our isolation Stephanie found a recipe, and after hesitation (because I wanted to get it right, notice that AGAIN!) I tried to do it myself. After a few times, it was starting to get pretty okay. And then after a while I noticed that I did not look at the recipe any longer. I had it in my head. And then I noticed that I started picking up on the nuances. I went off the recipe because the things I was doing and the stuff I was adding made it better! At least better in my opinion. If you put a bit of red pepper flakes in the browning sausage you get the flavor without so much heat, but add the black pepper at the very end. Little things like those I learned in the doing, over and over again, but these little things I had picked up had a big impact on the final outcome.  The goal was a delicious, hearty, not-too-thick, but not-too-runny sausage gravy worthy of any Southern kitchen. The goal was the gravy. The steps were the things I needed to make it innate, a part of me, so that I could do the steps but the real focus is, and should be, on the end result. I needed to trust the process.


The Young Man was still following the recipe. The recipe had not become a part of him yet. It was in his head, but it had not made its way down into his heart.

We learn and teach our children the 10 Commandments, not as the end game, but for the end result of loving God and respecting and loving each other and ourselves. This man loved God, but he thought that was reduced to the recipe. His final outcome, as it came in the very question he asked, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Do, do, do. He was still stuck in the steps.


Jesus shows his answer to this question by reframing it. He models it for us. “ Jesus, looking at him, loved him…” Friends, loving not doing is the end game. God does not want just Obedience, God wants Relationship. Now Obedience is obviously tucked into Relationship, but once again, not the End Game. So Jesus started with the Young Man with what he loved.


“You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.


The young man loved his stuff. It was his reward for all he “did.” The problem was not that he had money or that he had stuff. It was his LOVE of it that was getting in the way. Since Jesus’ day, this Rat Race has only gotten worse. And the problem with the rat race is that to be in it you have to be a rat. Jesus wanted more for him than that, and he wants more than that for us.


What Jesus called upon of the young man WHOM HE LOVED was to get his heart right, and everything else would be taken care of. The other way we say that more often is “Seek first the Kingdom of God and God’s righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you.” The consistency of Jesus’ message is being played out right here before our eyes. And Jesus goes on to say how hard it is for the rich to enter the Kingdom of God. It is not about the money, it is about the heart. As we live lives of comfort and lacking any needs, it is easy to be relaxed and complacent to the lives of those around us. And he tells his disciples that the stuff is going to be more than taken care of, and by the way, it is not about the stuff.


Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.


I told you we would come back to that. God is not worried about us being good. One of our key problems is that we make equations in our heads. They are unconscious. They are unconsidered. They creep into our psyches in subtle and pernicious ways.

We might think, “Good is equal to Holy,” but Jesus says No one is Good, because no one is like God.


So often people think “Being Rich is equal to being Blessed,” but Jesus says Seek God’s Kingdom first, not wealth.


This young man with all the stuff thought of eternal life as something else he could add to his long list of things he had earned, or that he deserved because of his status as “good” because of his meticulous rule-keeping. But we all know folks who follow all the rules but are stinkers that no one wants to be around. They did “right” and did things which might be good, but they are so very wrong. Hateful, petty, controlling, it could be a bevvy of things, we all have encountered the type.


But when we are in relationship with God, it comes out in who we are. St. Paul listed the characteristics of what that type of God-Life looks like if we are right with God. It comes out in our interactions and it is how people think of us when we walk away. “Loving, joyful, peaceful, patient, kind, good, faithful, and self-controlled.” St. Paul called these the fruit of the Spirit. Notice that that list did not include, “Ambition, Winning, Wealthy, Driven, Successful, or Superior.”  Those are very different lists. The Fruit of the Spirit or the virtues of the Rat Race.


God does not want us worried about doing good. That will come. We need to look to being Holy. The world Holy means to be set apart. We need to set ourselves apart from the ways of this world and focus on God’s dream for us and the world, God’s Kingdom. Today’s Gospel reading comes from the Gospel of Mark, and we cannot forget that Mark begins his Gospel with this very clear statement of what Jesus was about. It starts with Jesus’ baptism by John in the Jordan, and then in verses 14 and 15 it says this: 

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

Jesus came to bring the Kingdom near, he put the possibility in our hands. Will we seize it? Good is not equal to Holy. Rich is not equal to Blessed. The only way to win the Rat Race the world tries to force on us is TO NOT PLAY.



This week in our Book Group, we have been reading Father James Martin’s book, My Life with the Saints. One of the chapters this week was about the Jesuit Minister General Pedro Arrupe. I knew little of him, but in it he said this about Loving God:

Nothing is more practical than finding God, that is, than falling in love in a quite absolute final way. WHAT YOU ARE IN LOVE WITH, WHAT SEIZES YOUR IMAGINATION, WILL AFFECT EVERYTHING. [emphasis mine] It will decide what will get you out of bed in the morning, what you will do with your evenings, how you will spend your weekends, what you read, who you know, what breaks your heart, and what amazes you with joy and gratitude. FALL IN LOVE, STAY IN LOVE, AND IT WILL DECIDE EVERYTHING.

Quoted in My Life with the Saints, p. 117


WHAT YOU ARE IN LOVE WITH, WHAT SEIZES YOUR IMAGINATION, WILL AFFECT EVERYTHING. This young man loved his stuff, and thought that eternal life was something he could obtain. Jesus loved him. Jesus invited him to follow him in his way of loving God. Jesus loves us and invites us, too.


I close today with a prayer from Pedro Arrupe: 

Take, O Lord, and receive: all my liberty, my liberty, my understanding, and my entire will. All I have and possess are yours, Lord. You have given it all to me. Now I return it to you. Dispose of it according to your will. Give me only your love and grace, and I want nothing more. Amen.


Wednesday, October 6, 2021

Year B Proper 22 WED 2021 New Wine, Bartender

 Year B Proper 22 WEDNESDAY, 6 October 2021

St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA

“New Wine, Bartender”


Collect: Almighty and everlasting God, you are always more ready to hear than we to pray, and to give more than we either desire or deserve: Pour upon us the abundance of your mercy, forgiving us those things of which our conscience is afraid, and giving us those good things for which we are not worthy to ask, except through the merits and mediation of Jesus Christ our Savior; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.


Matthew 9:9-17

As Jesus was walking along, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth; and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he got up and followed him.

And as he sat at dinner in the house, many tax collectors and sinners came and were sitting with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” But when he heard this, he said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.”

Then the disciples of John came to him, saying, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast often, but your disciples do not fast?” And Jesus said to them, “The wedding guests cannot mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them, can they? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast. No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old cloak, for the patch pulls away from the cloak, and a worse tear is made. Neither is new wine put into old wineskins; otherwise, the skins burst, and the wine is spilled, and the skins are destroyed; but new wine is put into fresh wineskins, and so both are preserved.”


Jesus wasn’t acting much like a Messiah. At least not to the people who had strong ideas of how a Messiah should act.


To Matthew he certainly acted like one, which is why he got up and followed him.


To the tax collectors and sinners, so accused by the “churchy” folks, he certainly acted like a Messiah as he broke bread and spent time with them.


To his disciples, who were living each day in celebration and anticipation, he was the Messiah. And Jesus promised that the days would come when there would be fasting, and mourning, and other signs of pious devotion or grief. But not while he was with them.


It is impossible to live up to people’s expectations. Often they are unexpressed, until we transgress these invisible boundaries. Doing the right thing as best we can each and every day, even then, we will upset and disappoint. If Jesus upset the apple cart, how on earth would we expect not to do so and even worse? Often, though this might sound harsh, one must consider the source.


In today’s readings, we have the Pharisees, the notorious bad guys so often in the Gospels. They are so similar in their beliefs to what Jesus was teaching, but instead of turning his piety inward like they did, Jesus turned his piety outward. Jesus was not about making his life perfect to gain the reward, like this life was some game that could be won or lost. He turned his piety toward connecting and inviting and healing and transforming those who had written themselves off and no longer tried.


Tax Collectors. Sinners. Adulterers. Prostitutes. Those who knew they did not stand a chance were given an open hand up and a welcome door in. They stopped hoping, but Jesus came to heal and give hope in a dark and hurting world.


You cannot put new life into old packaging. You have to start fresh. The Pharisees wanted Jesus to act on their terms, New Wine in Old Skins. But Jesus said that just would not work. The bubbling up of the Holy Spirit requires new skins for the New Wine being poured.


Jesus was serving out this new wine, like some cosmic bartender. One who will listen to your problems with a loving ear, and give you something refreshing that will fill not just your mouth with taste or your head with a happy buzz, but it fills your soul with the very thing it was created to hold. As St. Augustine said, “Lord, my heart is restless until it rests in you.” I never thought of Jesus this way, especially with my evangelical upbringing till I heard a song from the Dave Matthews Band, a national group that got its start in Charlottesville, by the way. It is entitled “Bartender.” Here are just a few of the lyrics…


If I go before I'm old
Oh, brother of mine please don't forget me

If I go


Oh and if I die

Before my time
Oh sweet sister of mine

Please don't regret me

If I die


Bartender, please
Fill my glass for me
With the wine you gave Jesus that set him free

After three days in the ground


I'm on bended knees, I pray

Bartender, please

When I was young I didn't think about it, now I can't get it out of my mind

I'm on bended knees, father please


Oh if all this gold

Should steal my soul away

Oh, dear mother of mine please redirect me

If this gold


Bartender, you see

The wine that's drinking me

Came from the vine that strung Judas

From the devil's tree

It's roots deep, deep in the ground


I'm on bended knees, oh bartender please

I'm on bended knees, father please

When I was young I didn't think about it now I just wanna run and hide

I'm on bended knees, oh bartender please

Bartender, please


This is the type of person that might never feel welcome in our doors. But this is the type of soul that Jesus would have sought out, made welcome, and invited into his Kingdom. May we go, and do likewise. Amen.


Sunday, October 3, 2021

Year B Proper 22 2021 Grace Breaks Through

 Year B Proper 22, 3 October 2021

St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA

“Grace Breaks Through”


Collect: Almighty and everlasting God, you are always more ready to hear than we to pray, and to give more than we either desire or deserve: Pour upon us the abundance of your mercy, forgiving us those things of which our conscience is afraid, and giving us those good things for which we are not worthy to ask, except through the merits and mediation of Jesus Christ our Savior; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.


Mark 10:2-16

Some Pharisees came, and to test Jesus they asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” He answered them, “What did Moses command you?” They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.” But Jesus said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you. But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”

Then in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. He said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”

People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.



Children walk in wonder and delight. They do that because they observe. They notice. Everything is new. We become old when we cannot, or do not, look with fresh eyes. Looking at anything with that openness and enthusiasm, does not just stop us from becoming jaded and cynical, it prevents the calcification of our very souls. 


From an infant exploring their own hand. From sensations that surprise and delight. The wind streaming by in a car window, and letting our hand swim through it like a dolphin. The first time you can see your breath in the deep fall. The rush of the wave against your shins in your first tentative steps into the waves. We are fearfully and wonderfully made in a cosmos created with almost as much care and dedication.


Wow!


Just wow!


When we begin to become aware of that sense of deep abiding devotion to the most minute of details and the swirl of galaxies, it can be staggering. It is all-encompassing. The Grace of God comes roaring in, and we feel overwhelmed, overjoyed, and head-over-heels all at once.


Jesus encouraged us to approach our faith this way. “Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” I do not see this as blind naivete, but rather as lifelong wonder. The agnostic looks at life and sees a biological function. Not wrong, but I hope for a bigger picture. We are spiritual creatures having a physical experience, so we are greater than the sum of our parts.  Through the eyes of faith, we consider the lilies of the field or the birds of the air and we see them giving glory to God, and because of that we do, too.


Michelangelo, the great Renaissance painter and sculptor, never lost that sense of childlike wonder. A man of immense genius, he strove to always improve, obsessively at times it seems. His sculpture David in the Accademia Gallery of Florence, Italy, and the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican both show works of art that seem to breathe and still capture our imagination. According to a story, someone asked Michelangelo at the age of 83, “How does one live a good life?” His response was just two words: Ancora imparo. That is Italian for “I am still learning.” This man of immense genius was still striving and growing, he was changing and learning, just like a child. He never lost that Beginner’s Mind. He was still learning to have a good life at 83, and he had a good life because he was still learning at 83. May we all be so lucky.


I found myself relating another story this last week, one from my life, and it is still fresh in my mind. I was serving in a church stuck in a fear cycle. They had had a fight before I came and had lost about a third of the congregation, a big portion of which was the young families with kids. The Lead Minister was blamed. He blamed the people. Declining numbers, increasing expenses, it was a hard place to be. Everything came back to “How can we keep from dying?” And by the point when you circle the wagons you might as well admit, you are already dead.


A religion based on fears and controlling outcomes (which really means people), comes to no good. Short term wins are eventually lost and the jaded cynicism and spiritual calcification I mentioned earlier too often replace the limited gains that may have been made.


It was in that spirit that I was seeking answers to escape to fears and lead people away from them when I went to a conference all the way out in Seattle, some people looking at our faith in the age we are actually in, not the way we wish it to be, or holding out for a time that never actually was. They were wanting a faith for the Here & Now, a twenty-first century approach to an ancient and even timeless belief.


It was an eye-opening few days, learning, growing, being challenged. Most of us were in our 20s or early 30s, but there was a sense of shared relief that we were coming from places where we were being seen as different or strange, or even heretical, for questioning the direction of the Church as she moved into this new millennium. Just over a month after 9/11, the wars had just started while we were out there. So much uncertainty mingled together with a feeling of hope that things could actually change.


Wandering around throughout the conference, though, was a little man in his early 60s I would have guessed just taking it all in. He wore a brown hoodie, which was rather nondescript and I only paid attention to it after the fact. At the closing address I learned that the little man in the brown hoodie was Father Richard Rohr, prolific writer and thinker, a Franciscan with his characteristic brown, but a hoodie and jeans in lieu of his normal habit. He gave the closing address, and in his hour of speaking he pointed to the thing that I was missing in my attempt to help lead a congregation out of fear and into a life-giving Gospel of Jesus Christ. As it says in 1st John (4:18), perfect love drives out all fear.


Father Rohr went on to describe a cosmos made from love and for love. He described layers of creation, and our awakening to it. He spoke of the call of God, a loving, caring voice so different from the “sinners in the hands of an angry God” that I had too often heard and had sometimes preached. To sum up his message, he described a universe created, bound, and ruled by Grace. That’s it, Grace. But it was unlike a Grace I had ever heard of, or been able to conceive. It was as if during his talk there was a tremendous crack, the only thing I can liken it to is the Grinch’s heart growing three sizes that day. It was as if my very soul had cracked open like an egg, and what emerged was a fledgling on shaky legs,  a new awareness of the Grace of God and a long-sought hope for this world-weary soul.


After the talk I waited in the long line of folks to thank Father Rohr, and I was the last one in line. Stephanie was with me, poor woman. As I went forward and finally got a chance to speak, I said, “Father Rohr, I have been a pastor for over 10 years, but I think today I really heard the Gospel for the very first time.” That’s all I could get out because my calcified soul broke open, and the tears flowed. I sobbed. Words were not needed. He hugged me, and cried some, too. I was truly born again in that moment.


The removal of those blinders, of fear, of control, changed my ministry. It eventually led me into church planting and then from there into the Episcopal Church. Looking back, the path seems so clear and makes so much sense, but looking ahead we could only trust. And we could only move forward in that sense of childlike faith that the one who is bigger, and stronger, and who loves us will be there with us every step of the way. 




The God who made you is the God who loves you.


The God who loves you is the God who calls you.


The God who calls you is the God who is the God already ahead of us forging the way. 


The God who is ahead forging the way is the God who will welcome us home.


This God is a God of Grace, and if you ever hear me say anything, hear this. God is a God of Grace.


There is no shaming with a God who is with us all the way. God knows us better than we know ourselves. The teaching on divorce that we find troublesome in today’s reading is not about shaming or producing guilt in my opinion. It is Jesus holding up a mirror for us to see the implications of our actions. God’s desire is that our marital relationships be an honor and glory to him and to us. Divorce is apart from the dream and hope we have for our children when we send them out into the world. Divorce is apart from the wish and hope God has for our relationships of all sorts, especially this most pivotal of commitments, marriage.


Grace abounds, and Brennan Manning emphasizes in his The Raggamuffin Gospel, there is nothing you can do to make God love you any more and nothing you can do to make God love you any less. You are loved, God’s beloved, and there is nothing, absolutely NOTHING, either good or bad that can change that. “Thanks Be To God!”


And that, friends, is how we can let go of our grown-up pretensions and shift back into that child-like gear of wonder and awe, enjoying, embracing, and experiencing each moment of our one wild, precious, fleeting, and beautiful life. How could we not? Amen.