Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Year C Proper 15 WED 2019 Reminiscences

Year C Proper 15 WEDNESDAY, 21 August 2019
St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA
“Reminiscences”

Collect: Almighty God, you have given your only Son to be for us a sacrifice for sin, and also an example of godly life: Give us grace to receive thankfully the fruits of his redeeming work, and to follow daily in the blessed steps of his most holy life; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Acts 23:23-35
Then he summoned two of the centurions and said, “Get ready to leave by nine o’clock tonight for Caesarea with two hundred soldiers, seventy horsemen, and two hundred spearmen. Also provide mounts for Paul to ride, and take him safely to Felix the governor.” He wrote a letter to this effect:
“Claudius Lysias to his Excellency the governor Felix, greetings. This man was seized by the Jews and was about to be killed by them, but when I had learned that he was a Roman citizen, I came with the guard and rescued him. Since I wanted to know the charge for which they accused him, I had him brought to their council. I found that he was accused concerning questions of their law, but was charged with nothing deserving death or imprisonment. When I was informed that there would be a plot against the man, I sent him to you at once, ordering his accusers also to state before you what they have against him.”
So the soldiers, according to their instructions, took Paul and brought him during the night to Antipatris. The next day they let the horsemen go on with him, while they returned to the barracks. When they came to Caesarea and delivered the letter to the governor, they presented Paul also before him. On reading the letter, he asked what province he belonged to, and when he learned that he was from Cilicia, he said, “I will give you a hearing when your accusers arrive.” Then he ordered that he be kept under guard in Herod’s headquarters.

Mark 12:13-27
Then they sent to him some Pharisees and some Herodians to trap him in what he said. And they came and said to him, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality, but teach the way of God in accordance with truth. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not? Should we pay them, or should we not?” But knowing their hypocrisy, he said to them, “Why are you putting me to the test? Bring me a denarius and let me see it.” And they brought one. Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” They answered, “The emperor’s.” Jesus said to them, “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” And they were utterly amazed at him.
Some Sadducees, who say there is no resurrection, came to him and asked him a question, saying, “Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies, leaving a wife but no child, the man] shall marry the widow and raise up children for his brother. There were seven brothers; the first married and, when he died, left no children; and the second married the widow and died, leaving no children; and the third likewise; none of the seven left children. Last of all the woman herself died. In the resurrection whose wife will she be? For the seven had married her.”
Jesus said to them, “Is not this the reason you are wrong, that you know neither the scriptures nor the power of God? For when they rise from the dead, they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven. And as for the dead being raised, have you not read in the book of Moses, in the story about the bush, how God said to him, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is God not of the dead, but of the living; you are quite wrong.”

I have had some time to get reflective recently. The move has been good for us. We have whittled down our piles of “stuff” and reduced to a point of joy and greater simplicity. I have so appreciated the time and space to do so.

This morning’s Gospel is so often read from the negative. It is written that way, but this morning I want to focus on the positive, “Giving to God what is God’s.” and “God is God of the Living.” It may be my mind is going there because of Sunday’s readings from Hebrews about the “great cloud of witnesses.” It may be how I read it today. Whatever the reason, it got me thinking about “What Is God’s?”

After Harrison’s sermon on the 11th at the 8 o’clock, I ran to my office, grabbed my copy of the Message Bible, and took it to him. I showed him this passage with these words, “This is your entire sermon in one paragraph!” (Not a bad thing, mind you, it just summed it up so well.” From Romans 12 (vv. 1-2ish) from The Message translation:
So here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him. Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what he wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you.
That, my friend, is giving to God what is God’s, and giving ourselves as a Living Sacrifice to the Living God.

The other reason I am reminiscing this morning is from our reading in Acts. Now in Tuesday’s lectionary reading, Paul was about to be murdered, again. This time his nephew warns the tribune of the planned lynching and they leave a day early to avoid it. They bring Paul to Antipatris, a fort for a Roman garrison. In January of 1994 I was there. I was staying in a dorm at Petah Tiqva a far suburb of Tel Aviv, and someone on staff mentioned that a ruin of a Roman fort was behind the facility beyond the orange orchard. I could not believe it. But I think of the young man, the 24 year old looking for adventure and wanting to walk in biblical footsteps, and how much he thought he knew. And I think of who I am today, and how I long to learn so much more. I see a path, from there to here, getting further and further down the path of giving to God what is God’s.

Paul was being held for his faith, and his safety. I think back on the times when I have been held back, foiled, dismissed, and yet, so often protected in my faith. I was not surrounded by a garrison of Roman soldiers, so I guess my guardian angels have had to work overtime. God is God of the Living, not the Dead. Even in my young man’s follies. Even in my middle-aged routines. Even here I am being surrounded and protected, and called into deeper and deeper discipleship.

I loved that the governor is named Felix, which means “Lucky,” may we all be so lucky as to have someone named Lucky to hear our case. I invite you to take some time today. To think of some of the twists and turns that have brought you to where you are now, to who you are now. Even then, even there, even now, God is with you, and welcomes you home, even at home in yourself. Amen.

Sunday, August 18, 2019

Year C Proper 15 2019 The Eyes of Faith

Year C Proper 15, 18 August 2019
St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA
“The Eyes of Faith”

Collect: Almighty God, you have given your only Son to be for us a sacrifice for sin, and also an example of godly life: Give us grace to receive thankfully the fruits of his redeeming work, and to follow daily in the blessed steps of his most holy life; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Hebrews 11:29-12:2
By faith the people passed through the Red Sea as if it were dry land, but when the Egyptians attempted to do so they were drowned. By faith the walls of Jericho fell after they had been encircled for seven days. By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had received the spies in peace.

And what more should I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets-- who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. Women received their dead by resurrection. Others were tortured, refusing to accept release, in order to obtain a better resurrection. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented-- of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground.

Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect.

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.

Luke 12:49-56
Jesus said, "I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided:
     father against son
          and son against father,
     mother against daughter
          and daughter against mother,
     mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law
          and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law."
He also said to the crowds, "When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, `It is going to rain'; and so it happens. And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, `There will be scorching heat'; and it happens. You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?"

“It is always darkest before the dawn.” Or so it is said. THEY say it, whoever THEY are. And I have spent enough nights in the woods to know it to be the truth. I know when the darkness is at its peak that a warm glow is about to break the horizon. I know it so well that I do not have to question it. Experience has taught me. Reason has taught me. It is simple and easy for me to have Faith in the dawn. I know it in my bones.

Jesus so wanted the Kingdom to Come. He desperately desired it. He says as much: “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed!” But no one can teach someone to see what they cannot imagine. A story is told of the inhabitants on San Salvador island when Columbus landed. The Spiritual Leader for the tribe saw the ships coming in, and he pointed and shouted, but none of the people could see the ships because they had never seen a ship. They had never seen anything come in from across the water, especially out of the East. What was right in front of them was impossible for them to see. Jesus says the same of those who cannot see that the Kingdom of God is at hand, right before their eyes. Let those who have eyes, let them see!
He also said to the crowds, “When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, ‘It is going to rain’; and so it happens. And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, ‘There will be scorching heat’; and it happens. You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?”
We must look with the eyes of faith to see. It is like the Emperor’s New Clothes to those that do not understand, some mass delusion. What one can see is impossible for others. They do not have the eyes of faith to see what is so plain for those that do.

Therein lies the division. I would argue that much of the division in our lives right now comes from this, seeing from such vastly different perspectives that we cannot shift and view from our opponents’ vantage points. That is why Jesus promised:
Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided:
      father against son
          and son against father,
     mother against daughter
          and daughter against mother,
     mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law
          and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law."
For those who have received the Gift of Faith, we cannot “un-see.” Like some of those eye-trick games, once you see it, you have trained your brain to go there. Once seen, it is nigh impossible to shift back and look from the vantage point of ignorance.

(This is Jesus, if you can see it. Read between the lines.)

The Gospel is divisive. It argues that God loves us, and does not want us squished like bugs. The Gospel is divisive. The Gospel argues that there is a God of Grace at the center of things who is working out our salvation since before we were even born. The Gospel is divisive. The Gospel argues that God is a God of Abundance and has all that is needed, all that ever could be needed for today, for tomorrow, for always. The Gospel is divisive. For many these promises are poppycock, drivel, or lies. And that is where Faith comes in.

As Hebrews shares, apart from today’s reading: Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. (11:1) And there is the rub. The Conviction. Those who can see with the eyes of faith are convicted that the things unseen are real and true. Those who do not, cannot see the things not there.

When Jesus healed the man lowered through the roof while he was teaching, we often just remember the healing of him so that he could “take up his mat and walk.” But so easily we forget how the story starts. Jesus first forgives the man of his sins. Those religious leaders who are standing there whisper amongst themselves, “Who can forgive sins but God alone?” Jesus fires back, “Which is easier to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven?’ or ‘Take up your mat and walk?’ So that you will know that I have the authority to forgive sins, I say to the man ‘Take up your mat and walk!’” (Luke 5:17-25) But I love that next verse that comes: “Amazement seized all of them, and they glorified God and were filled with awe, saying, ‘We have seen strange things today.’”

And that is where faith comes from, seeing the strange and making the leap. It is not much for me to take the leap when I am waiting for the dawn and it comes. There is nothing strange about something that has happened every single day of my life.

But there is something strange to know DEEP DOWN that everything will be okay when all evidence points that it will not. That is the where the wonderful passage from Hebrews comes in. The person of faith who spoke or penned Hebrews recites a list of people who saw the strange, and made the leap of faith.
And what more should I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets-- who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. Women received their dead by resurrection. Others were tortured, refusing to accept release, in order to obtain a better resurrection. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented-- of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground. Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith...
Wow! Now some of these are biblical, and some of these have been lost to the centuries. Sometimes that leap of faith enabled them to do or receive miracles. Sometimes their faith came to naught FOR THEM. But their faith has not been lost! We are here because of them. Our faith, yours, mine, OURS is here because they could see the strange occurrences of their day, and believe in something that was not yet to be.

You see, we are in a lineage of faith, a line of belief that stretches back to Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Rachel, and on and on and on, throughout the centuries, the upheavals, the tosses and turns that life takes.

Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect.
You see, we are the dream they had of what faith could be. Do not let that word perfect throw you. We have spoke on it before. The word there is ‘to be done, to be complete, to have gone the distance.' Perfection is beyond most of our comprehensions. But almost all of us know the satisfaction of finishing a puzzle, getting a diploma, accomplishing a task and saying, “Ahh. It is finished.” We are the fulfillment of the hopes and dreams they may have had. And the generations to come will be the fulfillment and completion of the dreams we share with God of what this earth could be like as we get closer and closer to that Omega Point where the final fulfillment, the final completion, the final consummation is done. On earth as it is in heaven we continue to pray. And we continue to help realize in our lives and work.

So Hebrews continues:
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses... let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith...
And that is what guides our steps. We put aside those things which take us off the path set out for us. The sin. The bickering. The distractions. We move forward in the knowledge that something greater is on the horizon. It is the wisdom of growing trees under which we will never sit, digging holes for pools in which we will never swim. We do it for the greater good, not for our pleasure or reward. We do it for the Kingdom of God.

I got a t-shirt at the beginning of the summer. I like it. It was on sale. But I have received compliments on it most every time I have worn it. Strangers, friends, even family members have all taken the time to stop and compliment my T-shirt. It has a circular design on the front and shows a storm-tossed ship surrounded by these words. “Life is not perfect. Life is not easy. Life is good.” And that is my touchstone these days, as I live this life, because I can see through the eyes of faith.
Life is not perfect. Life is not easy. Life is good.

With the eyes of faith I can see beyond the divisive and troubled days we find ourselves in. I can see the strangeness of “this present darkness,”(Ephesians 6:12) and know that this is not normal and that it is always darkest before the dawn. I know that there is a God of Abundance and Grace at the heart of all things and is drawing all things to God’s perfection. God’s wholeness. God’s Vision for each of us, the world, the Universe. I can say that because I can see it here [point to heart], whether I will be here to see it with my eyes or not.

The people who compliment me on my t-shirt, I believe deep down, they are seeing with faith the truth of something so simple. They are witnesses with me that though our boats be tossed today, there is a calm, there is a peace, there is a dawn. When the storm is raging, I can still see the calm come mornng.
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God. 
Amen.

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Year C Proper 14 WED 2019 Jonathan Daniels Remembered

Year C Proper 14 WED, 14 August 2019
St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA
“Jonathan Daniels Remembered”

Collect:  O God of justice and compassion, you put down the proud and mighty from their place, and lift up the poor and the afflicted: We give you thanks for your faithful witness Jonathan Myrick Daniels, who, in the midst of injustice and violence, risked and gave his life for another; and we pray that we, following his example, may make no peace with oppression; through Jesus Christ the just one, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

From Holy Women, Holy Men:

Jonathan Myrick Daniels was born in Keene, New Hampshire, in
1939. He was shot and killed by an unemployed highway worker in
Hayneville, Alabama, August 14, 1965.


From high school in Keene to graduate school at Harvard, Jonathan
wrestled with the meaning of life and death and vocation. Attracted
to medicine, the ordained ministry, law and writing, he found himself
close to a loss of faith when his search was resolved by a profound
conversion on Easter Day 1962 at the Church of the Advent in Boston.
Jonathan then entered the Episcopal Theological School in Cambridge,
Massachusetts. In March 1965, the televised appeal of Martin Luther
King, Jr. to come to Selma to secure for all citizens the right to vote
drew Jonathan to a time and place where the nation’s racism and the
Episcopal Church’s share in that inheritance were exposed.

He returned to seminary and asked leave to work in Selma where he
would be sponsored by the Episcopal Society for Cultural and Racial
Unity. Conviction of his calling was deepened at Evening Prayer during
the singing of the Magnificat: “ ‘He hath put down the mighty from
their seat and hath exalted the humble and meek. He hath filled the
hungry with good things.’ I knew that I must go to Selma. The Virgin’s
song was to grow more and more dear to me in the weeks ahead.”
Jailed on August 14 for joining a picket line, Jonathan and his
companions were unexpectedly released after 6 days. Aware that they were in
danger, four of them walked to a small store. As sixteen-year-old Ruby
Sales reached the top step of the entrance, a man with a gun appeared,
cursing her. Jonathan pulled her to one side to shield her from the
unexpected threats. As a result, he was killed by a blast from the
12-gauge gun.

The letters and papers Jonathan left bear eloquent witness to the
profound effect Selma had upon him. He writes, “The doctrine of
the creeds, the enacted faith of the sacraments, were the essential
preconditions of the experience itself. The faith with which I went to
Selma has not changed: it has grown ... I began to know in my bones
and sinews that I had been truly baptized into the Lord’s death and
resurrection ... with them, the black men and white men, with all life,
in him whose Name is above all the names that the races and nations
shout ... We are indelibly and unspeakably one.”

A New Hampshire TV station did a great ½ hour special on him. Here is the link (watch all three parts):
Part One: https://www.wmur.com/article/the-granite-saint-the-story-of-jonathan-daniels/8596142 
Part Two: http://www.wmur.com/article/the-granite-saint-the-story-of-jonathan-daniels-part-ii/8606028
Part Three: http://www.wmur.com/article/the-granite-saint-the-story-of-jonathan-daniels-part-iii/8606066


Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Year C Proper 13 WED 2019 The Tender Spot

Year C Proper 13 WEDNESDAY, 7 August 2019
St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA
“The Tender Spot”

Collect: Let your continual mercy, O Lord, cleanse and defend your Church; and, because it cannot continue in safety without your help, protect and govern it always by your goodness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

2 Samuel 9:1-13 David extends grace to the House of Saul
Mark 8:34-9:1 
He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.” And he said to them, “Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the kingdom of God has come with power.”

What does taking up our cross look like? What does it look like in my life?

The answers to those questions are as personal as our fingerprints.

Where we are most tender is where are pain is. Think about it, I stub my toe, and that is where it hurts. For a while, a few minutes, hours, or days, I hobble along looking for relief, and maybe a little sympathy for my hurting toe. My toe is tender.

The hurt could be physical, but as I got older the pains I felt were far more often mental, emotional, psychological, or spiritual. When I have seen people “lose it” the most is when people stepped on their tender spot unawares. When I taught 6th grade boys, there was always a season of “Yo Mama” jokes. It was all fun and games until somebody told a “Yo Mama” joke on a kid who had just lost his mother. The recipient of the pounding said after I pulled the upset kid off, that he was just joking. And when I told him the reason why the other child reacted so violently, the first kid saw why the recipient was so “tender.”

But I also think, our tender spots are where we are often called to our ministry. You may have heard me quote this before. “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” ― Frederick Buechner

I have seen it too many times for it not to be true. I lost a lot of my childhood when my dad died, and it is also why so many decades of my ministry has been to, with, and for children. I am ferociously protective of that tender spot in my own life.

Our tender spots often develop blisters which become raw, but through continued working of those spots they become calloused or scarred. Often seen as a bad thing, but think on it, God made our bodies with amazing strengths, to harden our tender spots so that they can work and become even stronger than when we were first wounded. Our hearts and souls are the same. Where are your spiritual callouses? Where are your mental scars? “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”

That is taking up our cross, that is repeatedly doing the thing that used to hurt. We feel the pain, and the pain is real. But working that same spot, over and over we are strengthened. We are healed. We grow.

Our reading from Samuel affirms this. David, King David mind you, did not seek revenge. He sought out to honor the memory of King Saul who had tried to have him killed REPEATEDLY! David picked up his cross, and forgave, and honored, and was blessed in the act.

In our weakness, he is strong, (2 Corinthians 12:10) as St. Paul put it. Scorn not the tender spot, for even that, especially that, can be a gift from God.

What is your cross? What is your tender spot? There, especially there, you can hear the still small voice of God calling you. Amen

Sunday, August 4, 2019

Year C Proper 13 2019 Place Your Bets

Year C Proper 13, 4 August 2019
St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA
“Place Your Bets”

Collect: Let your continual mercy, O Lord, cleanse and defend your Church; and, because it cannot continue in safety without your help, protect and govern it always by your goodness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Luke 12:13-21
Someone in the crowd said to Jesus, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me." But he said to him, "Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?” And he said to them, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one's life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” Then he told them a parable: “The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, `What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?' Then he said, `I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, `Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.' But God said to him, `You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?' So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”

I have always been a sucker for musicals. They are so fantastical, so outrageous. Wouldn’t life be easier, and far more entertaining, if whenever we faced a problem or deep emotion we broke into song, and everyone would join in with a rousing chorus or a lively dance number? Alas, life is never that choreographed.

One of my favorite musicals is based on the short stories of Damon Runyon, writing about a mythical New York from the 20s and 30s that never existed. The caricatures he wrote about were ridiculous, but fun. Guys and Dolls encapsulated a few of those stories into a single narrative. One of my favorite characters, Sky Masterson, was nicknamed Sky because his bets were Sky High. He would wager staggering amounts on the most insane things. And he rarely lost. In the show, he wanted to date a woman who was in the show’s equivalent of the Salvation Army, the Save-A-Soul Mission just off of Times Square. She refused him, first because he was a gambler, and because she had to try and fill the mission for a midnight prayer meeting or it would be shut down according to her superior. He gave her his marker, a promissory note, for one dozen certified sinners for her prayer meeting if she would go on a date with him. He refused to give details. So she took his marker, and he made the bet of a lifetime. He walked into Nathan Detroit’s Crap game, and made a bet that was beyond belief. For the thirty-odd people there, he bet them $1000 EACH for them to attend this prayer meeting. “$1000 against their souls,” as he put it. Like I said he rarely lost. And in the moment he sang one of the stand-out songs of the show. “Luck Be A Lady” A great song. Marlon Brando sang it in the movie version. I heard a much better rendition by Frank Sinatra (who played Nathan Detroit in the movie, by the way) later on. But the sentiment he sings about is the same. What are you willing to stake it all on? In whom do you put your trust?

Life is risky. And we all can fail when it comes to being successful in this world. We could take our meager holdings and invest them, like Jesus talked about in the Parable of the Talents. But even then, we’ve all seen or heard the ads. Investing is always a risk, so legally one must have Risk Disclaimer. It usually goes something like this...
DISCLAIMER: Futures, stocks and options trading involves substantial risk of loss and is not suitable for every investor. The valuation of futures, stocks and options may fluctuate, and, as a result, clients may lose more than their original investment.
One looks at the things that could happen, and then at the potential rewards and they decide whether to invest or not. Jesus is going at that in today’s Gospel. Investment advisors say the average person who invests spends more time planning their vacation than they do planning their retirement. Jesus takes it one step further, you work and sweat in this life for gain, but spend no time on your eternity. Where do you put your trust? Where do you invest your greatest asset, your very soul? We are all given only one, one ride on this merry-go-round. Broadway had a show called, You Can’t Take It With You, (later turned into a movie) and folk singer Tracy Chapman sang that “All that you have is your soul.” We are constantly receiving the invite to Go Deep, but are we willing to take the chance? Or rather, are you willing to take the chance to not Go Deep?

I do not gamble, not with money anyway. It has never been something that attracted my attention. Just after college I visited a Casino when I was in the Bahamas, and walked out with a little more money than I walked in with. I figured it was beginner’s luck, but also, as I saw it, walk out while you are ahead. I am not wired for the adrenaline rush that gambling gives. Some people become addicted to it, and find it near impossible to stop once they start. They gamble with their very lives and livelihoods by the choices that they make. But Jesus is talking about the biggest gamble there is.

When the whiny little brother comes to Jesus, he is asking for a judgment. Now the oldest child would receive the lion’s share of the inheritance, and maybe this one is coming to Jesus to ask to make it “fair.” It goes against the customs of the times that would enable the oldest child to hold onto the family farm or holdings so that it could stay together and in the family. Whatever the reason was for the one to come to Jesus, Jesus’ response is to not worry about the trappings of this world, and to focus instead on what could make an eternal difference. He tells the story of a man, well-off, not worried one crumb over his soul.

As Jesus ended his story, “But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”

So you and I have a choice. In this life we are forced to gamble. We all have to choose where we are going to invest our time and energies. We have a phrase for people who invest in the small and in so doing miss the large. “Penny smart, and pound foolish.” Very British. As Yanks we would probably say something more like “Majoring in the minors.”

The man in today’s parable, building up storehouses and saying to his Soul, “Eat, drink, and be merry.” And then the next day he did die. If he had known that this was his last day, how would he have spent his time? How would you?

If you knew that you had 24 hours left, what choices would you make? What difference would it make in how you spent your time? Who would you call? Who would you reach out to? Who would you forgive? Who would you apologize to? What would you make sure was said?

Now none of us knows the day or hour when we will be called home. So what does that leave us?

Now.

Live life in the Now. Invest these precious moments in making a difference. A poll was taken of nurses who work with people who were near the end of their lives, and what were the common concerns or regrets. Number one on the list was worries for their loved ones they were leaving behind (50%), followed closely by the worry that they should have worked LESS, and spent time with family MORE (42%). (Source)

One thing I love about the Episcopal Church is that we teach and preach that all are beloved children of God. All are welcome, accepted, and loved. There is nothing you can do to make God love you any more, and there is nothing you can do to make God love you any less. (Brennan Manning, The Ragamuffin Gospel) We welcome the smallest newborn and those with a foot in the grave, for all are welcome in the family of God. Because of this, many of our folks do not have that “born again” experience, because they always accepted the Grace and love of God and resided there. Some come running to Grace, having experienced things in life that had them make a decision to place all their chips on God. Both are right. Both are okay. It is not either/or; it is both/and. No matter where you are coming from or what you have done, or haven’t done, God loves you and wants you to come home. “The only difference between the saint and the sinner is that every saint has a past, and every sinner has a future.” (Oscar Wilde, A Woman of No Importance)

I was shocked this week when it struck me on August 1 that it had been exactly three years to the day since I was laid off by my parish in Richmond. It gave me pause. It caused me to reflect. It had me send a few thank you emails. I posted a comment on it on Facebook, and was overwhelmed by the response. Many had prayed for me and my family along the way, and were witnesses to the idea that God is with us through thick and then. The lean times are better with God, and the gravy days are there because of God. In three years God has proven to be with us day in and day out. God landed us here, and I could not be more thankful. God is bigger than us. God can see over the horizon, and guide our steps in the now so that the vector we are on intersects with an outcome beyond our hopes, wishes, or dreams. THANKS BE TO GOD.

This morning I got up very early, even for me on most Sundays, so that I could bring up the horrific acts in El Paso yesterday. A disturbed young white man decided to bet his life on Hate, even writing a manifesto celebrating hate according to the reports. He took this one chance and went all in on killing others. 20 dead, and 26 wounded when I last checked this morning. And when I went to check, I learned that in the short night of sleep I had, something else happened that you may have missed. Another shooter attacked the club and restaurant district in Dayton, Ohio, killing 9, wounding 16 before he himself was killed. I pray those numbers did not go up more before the service this morning. With the blare of these headlines, you may have missed the one about the person who decided to drive his car into a group of people who were marching in an Anti-Violence rally. When going to Wal-Mart is a risk, when going out for a night on the town is a risk, when marching in an Anti-Violence rally is a risk, God help us all. But we cannot allow Hate or Fear to win.

In my preparation I glossed over the Collect for the day. You may have as well in your hearing of it. Let your continual mercy, O Lord, cleanse and defend your Church; and, because it cannot continue in safety without your help, protect and govern it always by your goodness; through Jesus Christ our Lord… We need to pray this for our nation, as well. People are betting it all on Hate and Fear. Jesus tells us clearly, DO NOT. Do not bet on Fear, or Greed, or Hate. Bet on Love. Bet on God. In the face of such evil, it is easy to be bitter. It is easy to be jaded. Even worse, it is easy to become numb. The scariest part of the Headline “In Today’s Mass Shooting…” is the word Today’s. In the face of such evil, we would do well to remember, “Love is the strongest force in the World, and yet it is the humblest imaginable.”-Gandhi. Millions of people loving, millions of people rejecting hate and fear, millions turning their backs on greed are going to overwhelm the handful that think their one wasted gamble can win. Where are you going to place your bets? On God and Love? On Greed or Fear?

When it all comes down, I am going to bet on Love. I am going to bet on God. “All that you have is your Soul.” Amen 

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Year C Proper 12 WED Overcoming Intolerable Systems

Year C Proper 12 WEDNESDAY, 31 August 2019
St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA
“Overturning Intolerable Systems”

Collect: O God, the protector of all who trust in you, without whom nothing is strong, nothing is holy: Increase and multiply upon us your mercy; that, with you as our ruler and guide, we may so pass through things temporal, that we lose not the things eternal; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Acts 16:16-24
One day, as we were going to the place of prayer, we met a slave-girl who had a spirit of divination and brought her owners a great deal of money by fortune-telling. While she followed Paul and us, she would cry out, ‘These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.’ She kept doing this for many days. But Paul, very much annoyed, turned and said to the spirit, ‘I order you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.’ And it came out that very hour.
But when her owners saw that their hope of making money was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the market-place before the authorities. When they had brought them before the magistrates, they said, ‘These men are disturbing our city; they are Jews and are advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe.’ The crowd joined in attacking them, and the magistrates had them stripped of their clothing and ordered them to be beaten with rods. After they had given them a severe flogging, they threw them into prison and ordered the jailer to keep them securely. Following these instructions, he put them in the innermost cell and fastened their feet in the stocks.

Mark 6:47-56
When evening came, the boat was out on the lake, and he was alone on the land. When he saw that they were straining at the oars against an adverse wind, he came towards them early in the morning, walking on the lake. He intended to pass them by. But when they saw him walking on the lake, they thought it was a ghost and cried out; for they all saw him and were terrified. But immediately he spoke to them and said, ‘Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.’ Then he got into the boat with them and the wind ceased. And they were utterly astounded, for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened.

When they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret and moored the boat. When they got out of the boat, people at once recognized him, and rushed about that whole region and began to bring the sick on mats to wherever they heard he was. And wherever he went, into villages or cities or farms, they laid the sick in the market-places, and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed.

I want to hold up two pictures from today’s readings. They both have something in common, which one might not notice at first glance, but could not be more important or more needed, then and now.

I want to talk today about Intolerable Systems, things set up to uphold the subjugation of individuals or groups. Unjust or Intolerable Systems are still here, and as long as humans run things, I am not sure they will ever go fully away. Just said the poor will always be with us as Jesus said, and that is a perfect example of an unjust system. Then and now.

When we see Paul and Silas in our Acts reading, they are preaching and an annoying enslaved girl who had a demon who told fortunes was hounding them. Out of spite, it seems, he casts out her demon. A good thing. Right?

But then Paul and Silas are drug to court, accused of disrupting the status quo, and beaten and shackled in jail. Now, they overturned a corrupt, unjust, and intolerable system. They kept a girl from spiritual and corporal enslavement. When they confronted the system, they took everything they had to crush those that worked against the “way things ought to be.”

When we confront unjust systems, the response will often be the same. “The church has no business in this subject.” Or, “You ought to stay in your lane.” The problem is that our culture has become SO POLITICAL that it confuses the Church being the Church (a.k.a. the force for justice, liberation, and peace in the world) for politics. (This came out a few hours after I wrote this, but is a perfect example of what I am talking about: link.)

When Jesus upset an unjust situation, much like the one Paul and Silas upset, he had a similar response. In Mark 5, we recently read about the Gerasene Demoniac. If you remember when he cast out Legion, the army of Demons, the man was excited by the people there asked Jesus to move on. But notice the response when he came back.
When they got out of the boat, people at once recognized him, and rushed about that whole region and began to bring the sick…
Without the fear and kickback of the initial response, we now see that the system that first asked him to leave is now actively and positively responding. They are flocking to him, and encouraging him to do what at first was so scary to them and the status quo.

We are now sitting on the other side of history on so many things we see as unjust. Slavery. The subjugation of women. The 40 hour work week. Public Education. What was once crazy and subversive is now the norm and expected. And in most of these areas, religious leaders were at the forefront making things “on earth as it is in heaven.” And we have so far to go. When we attack the systems that persecute, take advantage of, or enslave others we will have a heavy price to pay. We are afflicting the comfortable, and hopefully, comforting the afflicted. But once we stay the course and overcome the powers that be, we will be welcome and celebrated and our ministry will abound. Amen

Sunday, July 28, 2019

Year C Proper 12 2019 Let Us Pray

Year C Proper 12, 28 July 2019
St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA
“Let Us Pray”

Collect: O God, the protector of all who trust in you, without whom nothing is strong, nothing is holy: Increase and multiply upon us your mercy; that, with you as our ruler and guide, we may so pass through things temporal, that we lose not the things eternal; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Luke 11:1-13
Jesus was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, "Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples." He said to them, "When you pray, say:

Father, hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.
Give us each day our daily bread.
And forgive us our sins,
for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.
And do not bring us to the time of trial."

And he said to them, "Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, `Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.' And he answers from within, `Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.' I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs.

"So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!"

You are loved by God, and God wants the best for you.

That’s it. That’s my sermon.

That is what Jesus is saying here, but because we are not sure, because we doubt, because we see things that go against that idea in our lives we have to say it over and over and over again.

In the beginning of this interaction and the following teaching goes back to that question, “Does God even care? And if so, how can we get God’s attention?”
Often when I visit people ask for a prayer from me. I am often already praying quietly within. As St. Paul urged, pray without ceasing. A running dialogue is best, or a dribbling monologue will do. But your prayers are efficacious, too! God wants to hear what is on your heart! There is no prayer from you that can hurt. In fact, praying is often how I find out what I really think.

Now I am not speaking to all of you, but to those who are not directly affected, you are indirectly affected all the time. I am an external processor. I put my ideas out there, whirl them around, check out the problem areas, take it for a spin. It drove my wife crazy before we came to the understanding that just because I said it did not mean that I meant it. Or rather, I was externally processing my thoughts and ideas. She need not respond or react. I must say, that this is often how I see my prayer life.

God wants me, I believe, to put it out there. I need to hear what I am thinking, and if I do not do that I cannot deal with my “stuff.” Those areas where God needs to step in and do a lot of work. Often a simple way to see this is by what I call the shiny red bike.

Dear God, I want a shiny, red bike.

Now God could say, No. You do not need a shiny, red bike. You do not ride the blue one you have. But that’s not God. The more and more I pray for that shiny, red bike, the more and more I can see that my blue one is perfectly fine. I could use it more. In fact, I love riding bikes. I should do that more. And then guess what comes out of my mouth.

Thank you God for my perfectly wonderful blue bike. I am so appreciative that I have it.

You see what happened there? So often we think that prayer will change things for us. We WANT it. So we think that we should have it. But then God comes in, and does something more beautiful. God changes us for things.

It could be the shiny, red bike. It could be the diagnosis of cancer. It could be a sick and ailing friend. It could be whatever is weighing on your heart. God changes you for things, more than God changes things for you.

Internal processors, those who guard their thoughts and are sparing in their words, you need to pray, too. You need to say the words. It cannot, should not, be taken as a given. I love that seen in Fiddler on the Roof, when Tevya asks his long-suffering wife, “Do you love me?” At one point, Golde, the wife, even chalks up his silliness to indigestion, but then they sing:

Golde: Do I love him?For twenty-five years, I've lived with him,Fought with him, starved with him.For twenty-five years, my bed is his.If that's not love, what is?Tevye: Then you love me?Golde: I suppose I do.Tevye: And I suppose I love you, too.Together: It doesn't change a thing, but even so,After twenty-five years, it's nice to know…Songwriters: Berry Gordy Jr / Berry / Jr Gordy
Do You Love Me? lyrics © Bock Ip LLC, Imagem U.S. LLC, Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC, Universal Music Publishing Group

It is important to say the words, in life, and in prayer. It is so easy to take the most important things in our lives as “for-granted.”

And that is what Jesus is getting it in our prayers. We need to say the things. Even to God. Especially to God.

So when the disciples asked to learn to pray, Jesus answers. Now the differences you may notice in this version is that the one we most often say is from the King James Bible with its more formal language, and it is from Matthew’s Gospel from the Sermon on the Mount. Here is Jesus in Luke, in the New Revised Standard Version which has a few differences.
Father, hallowed be your name.Your kingdom come.Give us each day our daily bread.And forgive us our sins,for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.And do not bring us to the time of trial.
Let us break that down.

Father, hallowed be your name.
     (God, you are God and I am not. You are great, awesome, and holy.)
Your kingdom come.
     (I want your lead in this world and in my life.)
Give us each day our daily bread.
     (Supply my needs. I trust in you and your providence.)
And forgive us our sins,
     (When I stray, bring me home.)
for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.
     (I need to be as gracious in my life as you are in your dealings with me.)
And do not bring us to the time of trial.
     (Now I am with the Pope on this one. Our translations make some problems. He encouraged the         change to “Let us not fall into temptation.” Very similar to the prayer, “Guide my steps.”)

And in some ancient texts, not the oldest that we have, the phrase “but rescue us from the evil one” has been added. Some scribes may have tried to bring it closer to the Matthew account. Or we may have some texts that missed it in the even earlier, lost copies. But here we have the same idea, “God, draw me closer to you and your dream for the world.”

And with all that we can see how God just wants to hear from us. What is on our hearts and minds. Our worries, our fears, our hopes, our dreams, our lusts, our sins, our motivations. God wants to know. And once we allow the spotlight to shine on  every single part of us, the good, the bad, the ugly, we can begin to do the long, hard, important work that needs to be done. Prayer is like that. It is the opening of a door. Like vampires in the mythology, God needs to be invited in.

And that is why we can in confidence say and believe how Jesus teaches. Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.

Ask. You will receive. Now will you receive what you ask for? Maybe, even probably, not. But receive you will. My daughters ask for ice cream almost every meal. I have to remind them, “IT’S BREAKFAST!!!” But will I feed them? Yes. Is it what they ask for? No. But it is what they need.

Seek. Look for God, even in the worst, darkest, most hopeless situation. God is there. Psalm 139:8 If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
There is nowhere you can go, there is no situation in which you can find yourself, where God is not already there waiting for you. No worry. No fear. No temptation. You are not alone. Seek, and you will find.

Knock. And the door will be opened. One Thanksgiving, my mother came up from Newport News, and my daughters had not seen her in months. My youngest was so excited, and like a bulldog locking its jaw, once she gets something in her head it does not let go. She took her little toddler chair, and put it by the door. The parade came and went, and we were well into the dog show when my mom knocked at the door. My daughter had sat there for almost four hours, ready for the moment my mother arrived. If my daughter loves her grandmother that much, how much more does God love you? Knock. The door will be opened. Immediately. Exuberantly. Enthusiastically.

So prayer. There is nothing that is magical, persuasive, or influential that you can say.

  • But come honest, in your heart and approach. God already knows. Hold nothing back. 
  • And come open, open to the outcomes. Come with your request, and be ready to get what you need not necessarily what you want.
  • And come. Just come. Come to God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength. Pray for your neighbor and for yourself. 

Let us pray, “Our Father… [join with us…] Amen

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Year C Proper 11 WED 2019 Rebuke

Year C Proper 11 WEDNESDAY, 24 July 2019
St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA
“Rebuke”

Collect: Almighty God, the fountain of all wisdom, you know our necessities before we ask and our ignorance in asking: Have compassion on our weakness, and mercifully give us those things which for our unworthiness we dare not, and for our blindness we cannot ask; through the worthiness of your Son Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Mark 4:35-41
On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.” And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. He said to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

Sidenote: This is the first text I ever preached on when I was 16 years old. I preached on power and authority. If I remember right, the sermon was entitled "Power Up!" Now, when I read it, I see restraint, patience, love, and humility. Is it the years? Is it maturity? [Some might insert laugh there] Whatever. I am different, and God is still with me. Thanks be to God.

What is God like? We have so many competing ideas.

“What are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?” Psalm 8:4 reminds us.

Jesus is taking a nap. I have to admit, when I am awakened from a nap, I am at my grumpiest. I have chosen to go to sleep. I have not chosen to wake up. I think we get a very honest appraisal of the person and the situation when we see how they act when they wake up.

Going back to the original question, what is God like? On Sunday we had that wonderful verse from Colossians (1:15-16) “[Jesus] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him.” If we want to see what God is like, we look to Jesus. If we want to see what Jesus is really like, wake him from a nap.

And what is it we see?
They woke him up and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm.

When I get suddenly awakened from my nap, the offending party is usually the victim of my ire, but who does Jesus rebuke? What is confronted?

The wind. Plain and simple. Not the people. Not those who woke him up. But the wind.

They are worried. Jesus can see that. But he does not deal with the effect, but goes to the root, the source.

From this week’s Collect: “Have compassion on our weakness, and mercifully give us those things which for our unworthiness we dare not, and for our blindness we cannot ask…” Notice they do not ask for the wind to stop blowing. They complain, “Do you not care that we are perishing!” Jesus deals with the thing they did not dare ask, the thing in their blindness they did not ask. They had no idea he had that authority, that power over the wind. Their response, “Who then is this???”

So what is God like? The transitive axiom of equality, if you remember your basic algebra (A=B, and B=C, then A=C). If Jesus is the image of the invisible God, and Jesus does not rebuke the people here in their fear, then God is like that. Meeting us where we are, going to the source of our worries, not the effects.

I find that very comforting. In looking at the Greek for this passage. “Why are you so timid? How do you not have faith?” I think of all the times that could be said of me. I me of little faith. The Rebuke is not on me, though. When I am in the boat with Jesus, I can weather any storm. And even when I am worried and distracted like Martha on Sunday or the disciples today, Jesus cares, Jesus responds, and Jesus calls me to faith. Amen

Sunday, July 21, 2019

Year C Proper 11 2019 Worries Distractions & the Better Part

Year C Proper 11 21 July 2019
St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA
“Worries, Distractions, and the Better Part”

Collect: Almighty God, the fountain of all wisdom, you know our necessities before we ask and our ignorance in asking: Have compassion on our weakness, and mercifully give us those things which for our unworthiness we dare not, and for our blindness we cannot ask; through the worthiness of your Son Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Colossians 1:15-28
Christ Jesus is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers-- all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.
And you who were once estranged and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his fleshly body through death, so as to present you holy and blameless and irreproachable before him-- provided that you continue securely established and steadfast in the faith, without shifting from the hope promised by the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven. I, Paul, became a servant of this gospel.
I am now rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ's afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church. I became its servant according to God's commission that was given to me for you, to make the word of God fully known, the mystery that has been hidden throughout the ages and generations but has now been revealed to his saints. To them God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. It is he whom we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone in all wisdom, so that we may present everyone mature in Christ.

Luke 10:38-42
As Jesus and his disciples went on their way, Jesus entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord's feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, "Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me." But the Lord answered her, "Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her."

Martha often gets a bad rap. We need our Marthas. They get the job done. I am always wary as I come to this story, because it can so easily be misconstrued. Jesus did not want Martha to do less, necessarily, but rather to put first things first. We need the Marthas to get things done, and for the Marys to get it in gear when the time comes.

This reminds me of a story. A man walks into a psychiatrist’s office, and says, “Doc, you have to help me. My wife thinks she’s a chicken.” The doctor, surprised says, “Well bring her in so we can figure this out and fix the situation.” The man paused, and then said, “And by fix you mean to have her stop thinking she’s a chicken?” “Yes!” replied the psychiatrist. Another pause. “Then what will we do for eggs?”

We want the benefit without the cost. We want our Marthas to keep plugging and chugging, but Jesus wants us all whole. He wants the Marthas to not be unhealthy, and the Marys to jump in at the appropriate time. Jesus knows about getting things done, and a healthy way to do it. From his three year ministry, we are still here today. And as we read in the beautiful opening to Colossians:
Christ Jesus is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers-- all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.
Jesus is about the doing. But to get the job done, we have to come at the task in a healthy and appropriate way. Burning ourselves out, burning bridges with our sisters and brothers, feeling unloved and spent, is NOT how God wants us to live this one precious life we have been given.

What we see here is a burnt out Martha. She is hurting.  And hurting people hurt people. They may not mean to, or they may be full of malice wanting to lash out at the world. When I was doing lifeguard training so many decades ago, one of the things they taught us was that if someone is drowning, all rational thought is gone. They may try to climb up a rescuer just to catch one breath so desperate is their need. The same can be said of so many who are hurting who do much the same thing. They are so desperate to maintain normal that they can run all over people do keep up the appearance of having their act together.

Martha gets a bad rap, too often. She is doing exactly what she was expected to do by society, and I have to admit, we need Marthas. They keep the world going, the dishes washed and the grass cut. Duty, a word we do not use very much any more, is vital and needed. It keeps us going when we do not have it in us to do the thing which needs to be done.

I was serving a church, and got the unfortunate news that I was about to be laid off. But that did not stop the need for me to keep doing my job till the last day. Giving and attendance had gone down, and the numbers could not justify having an associate any longer. Now this church had a vibrant and unbelievable food ministry. They served more than 100 families weekly, year-round. It was a staggering amount of work each and every week. In my final days, I was having a bit of a pity party. I did not want to go to work. It depressed me having to pack up shop. It hurt. Now on Food Pantry days in the summer, I often took my kids in so they could help. There were lots of jobs they could do, and I liked seeing them helping and learning to give, even in small ways. Driving in that morning, I got a little too honest, and said out loud, “I really don’t want to go to work today.” Immediately my youngest fired back, “But they need us!” Duty, even out of the mouth of someone who did not need to use two hands to count her age, is a good thing, it motivates us and keeps us going.

But often, tired people shift. Duty becomes drudgery, and that is where obligation rears its ugly head. Martha had gotten to that point. She was hurting, wanting some aid, so she appeals to a higher authority, Jesus. “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” Drowning people drown people. Hurting people hurt people. Duty or obligation was keeping Martha from doing what she really wanted to do, sit at Jesus’ feet and learn from the Teacher. She did not want to be up and doing, but she also did not want her sister getting to do what she wanted to be doing herself if she could not. Hurting people hurt people. She decided to pull her sister down to her level, instead of stepping up to be where she wanted.

Duty, while helping us get things done, while helping things keep going, there are times and seasons when we are called to something higher, better. You do not wash dishes when the guest of honor is present. There will be time to do that later. As Jesus told Martha, “Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.” Bringing Mary down will not help Martha get up. I have said this often, and I will repeat it for years to come because I need to constantly be reminded. Watch Jesus. In his interactions, over and over, he invites people to reframe and step up. He does not get mired in bringing down, he reframes the situation, and encourages folks to step up to something higher, something better. Mary and Martha, you and me.

When Jesus informs Martha of where she is getting stuck, I almost feel like he is talking to our society. The need to be needed makes us feel important. The cult of celebrity and being known makes us feel important. Our society preaches a gospel of success, which is the foundation of the American heresy, the Prosperity Gospel. God wants you rich, and happy, and beautiful. Martha thought her busy-ness would get her praise. But Jesus saw through it. “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things.” That is not what he wants for you. Not for me. Not for Martha.

I saw a priest friend of mine posted this quote this week from the book Keeping in Tune with God, and it fit so well with this week’s text:
A hectic schedule can be a misplaced effort to earn respect and affection, which invariably leads to exhaustion and spiritual aridity. Prayer gets squeezed in between meetings and appointments or dwindles altogether. A desire to serve God morphs into a flurry of activity that serves a hungry ego. The result is burnout. Keeping in Tune with God: Listening Hearts Discernment for Clergy (p. 8)

Ministry never ends. It could go on, 24/7/365. But our Lord modeled for us healthy servant leadership. He modeled for us washing each others’ feet, as well as going off alone to pray. He modeled for us to let ourselves be interrupted by the stranger in the crowd, and then getting back to the urgent matter at hand. The advice for the passenger on the plane is often the same one we need to hear. Put your own oxygen mask on first so you have the ability to help someone else. Martha jumped to the task at hand, and then complained she could not breathe.

The call of God is for us to be faithful, not successful. We are called to follow, and trust that the path we are on will be blessed and fruitful, though we may not see it. When the founders of this church set out 150 years ago, little could they imagine the acres of beautiful land we have, the facilities where we can bring glory to God. But they started down a path they could not see the end of. A wise man plants a tree that they will never sit under, digs a hole for a pool in which they will never swim. When we get worried and distracted, maybe we need to accept Jesus invitation to sit at his feet, bask in his love and teachings, and remember why it is we do what we do.

When I was feeling sorry for myself, worried about my calling, my vocation, my wife and kids, I felt a bit like Martha. Worried and distracted, and said I did not want to go to work. Duty was done, and obligation had reached its end. I did not want to have to work the food pantry or deal with anybody. But out of the mouths of babes, wisdom emerged. “But they need us!” It was not out of duty, nor out of obligation. It was out of a true sense of care and concern. It was said out of love for the Least of These. If she could not show up, she could not help. And if she could not help, people would not eat.

Reframe, and step up. Jesus can speak to us in so many ways. Jesus can invite us even through the mouths of the very ones we are given charge over. Choose the better part. Amen.

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Year C Proper 10 WED Let the New Be New

Year C Proper 10 WEDNESDAY, 17 July 2019
St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA
“Let the New Be New”

Collect: O Lord, mercifully receive the prayers of your people who call upon you, and grant that they may know and understand what things they ought to do, and also may have grace and power faithfully to accomplish them; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Mark 2:13-22
Jesus went out again beside the sea; the whole crowd gathered around him, and he taught them. As he was walking along, he saw Levi son of Alphaeus 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 Levi’s house, many tax collectors and sinners were also sitting with Jesus and his disciples—for there were many who followed him. When the scribes of the Pharisees saw that he was eating with sinners and tax collectors, they said to his disciples, “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” When Jesus heard this, he said to them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.”
Now John’s disciples and the Pharisees were fasting; and people came and said to him, “Why do John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?” Jesus said to them, “The wedding guests cannot fast while the bridegroom is with them, can they? As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast. The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast on that day.
“No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old cloak; otherwise, the patch pulls away from it, the new from the old, and a worse tear is made. And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and the wine is lost, and so are the skins; but one puts new wine into fresh wineskins.”

Putting the new onto the old rarely works. Jesus talks about it with new patches on old cloaks. Once the new patch shrinks it will pull away from the already shrunk cloth. He speaks of it with new wine, fermenting. You put the juice in with the yeast into a leather bladder or bag sealing it, and the yeast eats the sugars converting it into ethyl alcohol and carbon dioxide. The gases cause the wineskin to expand, stretching the leather. If you pour new wine into already stretched out leather it will burst and you will lose everything. When starting fresh, start fresh.

Levi was like that. He had had to work to get his position as a tax collector, bribing all the right people, and swindling others to make enough to pay off the bribes. It was a lucrative, but expensive trade. Jesus did not say, “Add some of my teachings, and stir.” What he did say is “Follow me.” It requires one to get up, leave what was behind to follow him.

But the call to leave things behind was not just for Levi’s ease. Jesus knew people. It is almost impossible to not follow old scripts. People were not willing to give Levi, or most people, the benefit of the doubt. Even at the dinner they held that night (remember Levi was well off), Levi had invited his friends, “tax collectors and sinners,” to come and hear the teachings of this remarkable rabbi and his disciples. The “judginess” came out quickly. They judge Jesus for the company he keeps. It is human nature, as old as time. As I said on Sunday, we choose those with whom we are close, and those with whom we are not. Look who Jesus chose.

My collar gets in the way of a lot of people getting to know me. When someone is acting normal around me, and they find out I am a minister it is funny and sad sometimes how they shift and begin to act differently. This slip of a curse word now requires an apology once they know. It is awkward for both of us. I am a sinner who found a way out of my cycle, am still finding a way out of of some of my cycles, and like Levi I want EVERYONE to try what I have found. “Taste and see that the Lord is good!” declares Psalm 34:8. We were at a restaurant the other day and I was surprised and delighted by something I ordered. I handed around forks with a sample around the table. “You gotta try this!” The girls did. God is like that, too. I have found a sense of peace and grace and love that I cannot put into words. And that excitement and exuberance bubbles up, like new wine in new skins.

In the last few days, as we have been unpacking and settling in the rectory, I have been very intentional about doing some practices and disciplines I have started and stopped or long wanted to adopt. They always came with stops and starts, but not that we have a radical reorientation in our lives, I trust and hope that this will now be more and more possible and sustaining. It has so far, thanks be to God.

“No one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and the wine is lost, and so are the skins; but one puts new wine into fresh wineskins.” We need to let the new be new, and leave behind what holds us back. Amen