Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Year A 5th Epiphany WED 2020 Censorship through Noise

Year A 5th Sunday of the Epiphany WEDNESDAY 12 February 2020
St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA
“Censorship Through Noise”

Collect: Set us free, O God, from the bondage of our sins, and give us the liberty of that abundant life which you have made known to us in your Son our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Romans 12:1-8
I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.

For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgement, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness.

John 8:12-20 (Today’s Gospel, read but not focused upon)

Stay with me here, this is about Jesus, and loving Jesus more. But I need to do a little background. I was listening to a radio interview yesterday with the writer McKay Coppins on his new article in The Atlantic. They were talking about the current political climate, and how this year the idea of truth and logic have already been thrown out the window. We are witnessing where one need not counter the opposition, but rather drown them out with such a stream of other (whether factual, or logical, or not) that any opposing voice is drowned out. I got chills as he was describing it.

This is from his article discussing his research on this tactic used by authoritarians around the world:
What I was seeing was a strategy that has been deployed by illiberal political leaders around the world. Rather than shutting down dissenting voices, these leaders have learned to harness the democratizing power of social media for their own purposes—jamming the signals, sowing confusion. They no longer need to silence the dissident shouting in the streets; they can use a megaphone to drown him out. Scholars have a name for this: censorship through noise.
(Here is a link to the article from the March 2020 edition.)

We no longer need a better argument, or facts, just a better sound system. Now, before anyone gets up and leaves, this is almost the exact attack that Uncle Screwtape instructed his nephew Wormwood to do to keep a new follower of Jesus from growing in his faith in C.S. Lewis’s classic The Screwtape Letters.

“When this, or any other distraction, crosses his mind you ought to encourage him to thrust it away by sheer will power and to try to continue the normal prayer as if nothing had happened; once he accepts the distraction as his present problem and lays that before the Enemy and makes it the main theme of his prayers and his endeavours, then, so far from doing good, you have done harm.”

Remember that The Screwtape Letters are written from demons pulling a sinner away from “the Enemy,” a.k.a. God, so distracting us, in our prayers, in our service, in our devotions, and having us think that distraction, whatever it is, is the main thing, then they have won. Censorship through noise.

This year there will be screaming, finger-pointing, and hate. Love, patience, joy will be the only things that will win the day. D-Day was long before the end of World War II, but after that Germany’s fate was sealed. At Calvary, our Enemy, our true Enemy was defeated for eternity. Right now we are just having skirmishes with a terrified and defeated foe, some as big or bigger than the Battle of the Bulge.

That is why Paul can encourage us to put all our chips on Jesus. It is, as he would say, the only winning hand. The Romans passage encourages us to be all in, each and every day. When the distractions pull us away, we can center, asking God for help as we need to do so, so that we can be who we were born to be in Christ. My favorite translation of this passage comes from Eugene Peterson’s The Message. I have probably read this before. I should probably read it to myself daily. These are just the first two verses from today’s passage.

Romans 8:1-2 from Eugene Peterson’s The Message.
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.

The Call of Christ is calling us to our best selves, always has been, always will. Uncle Screwtape will distort, distract, and disarm us in whatever way he can. “Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out.” May we keep the main thing the main thing. Amen

Monday, February 10, 2020

Year A 5th Epiphany 2020 Living Into Abundance & Middle School Skit

Year A 5th Sunday After Epiphany, 9 February 2020
St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA
“Living into Abundance”

Collect: Set us free, O God, from the bondage of our sins, and give us the liberty of that abundant life which you have made known to us in your Son our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Matthew 5:13-20
Jesus said, “You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.

“You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” 

[Note from Rock+: This sermon was a short homily to coincide with our Annual Meeting and our Middle School Sunday. At the bottom I included the skit I co-wrote with my middle school daughter.]

Today I want to speak about a word, a single word. And it is not even in our Gospel, but it is in our Collect for the day. But without this word, and the attitude and that it represents then everything in the Gospel cannot be true.

Last week we looked at our Belovedness, and how I believe that the Beatitudes express that all are Beloved to God and thus can be happy in God, through God, and with God no matter the instance we find ourselves in. And coupled with that concept of Belovedness is what that means for us.

One of the joys of being married, is that in almost in situation I know that Stephanie will have my back. We are a team. We are together through it all. We have been. And I trust, as long as there is breath in our lungs, we will be. She and I can and will face anything that comes, together. So it is with God, too.

God plus you is bigger than anything! And with that comes our word of the day. Abundance. From our collect: Set us free, O God, from the bondage of our sins, and give us the liberty of that abundant life which you have made known to us in your Son our Savior Jesus Christ… You see with God we have all we need. God gives us not just a sense, but a reality of Abundance. We have all we need. We will have all we need.

This last Wednesday morning we spoke of the time when the Hebrew children wandered in the desert, living on the sustenance provided by God, the Manna that came down from heaven. Learning to fully rely on God is hard. It takes faith. For forty years, the people of God were taught to rely fully on God. We are living in the most productive and prosperous nation on earth, and arguably in the history of the world. That felt need of fully relying on God left us a long time ago.

Now do not hear me saying that we get what we want, that is the bailiwick of the Prosperity Gospel heresy. I am not saying that. I never will. We are not talking about luxury, desire, or comfort. We are talking about need.

And as we live into sharing what we have, and in living more and more into who Christ would have us be, then God entrusts us with more and more. We are blessed to be a blessing. And like I was talking about with someone last Sunday at coffee hour, we give and then we find that God blesses us with more so we can give more, bless more. Thanks be to God.

From that Abundance, Jesus can say, “You are the salt of the earth.” And remember, when Jesus was saying this it was a precious substance that took labor and effort to make, and it was a precious thing. In the arid land where he was, Salt was Life. To be a precious commodity requires a shift in our understanding. But we do not make ourselves precious, we are precious for whose we are, not who we are.

From that Abundance, Jesus can say, “You are the light of the world.” We are not expected to shine our light, but like the moon, we reflect the light of the Sun (Son?). God is the source of our Light, not given for our benefit, but we are blessed to be a blessing. We acknowledge the Abundance of an Omniscient, Omnipotent, Omnipresent God. And we can reside in that Abundance.

Now are there those among us who have needs? Of course. But WE have all we need. Our hesitancy to live lives of Abundance is a faith issue amongst us. When I share with you, I receive the blessing of knowing I have helped a sister or brother, in knowing that God has provided enough for me to be generous, in knowing that the way I have seen God provide before will still be true tomorrow.

Do we have the faith to be the Light of the World, the Salt of the Earth? Let’s even scale it back. Do we even have the faith to be the Light of Ashland? The Salt of Hanover?

It is not that we have a shortage of anything, except maybe faith. Like the man said who asked Jesus for a healing for his son, “Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief.” Lord, we believe. Help our faith live into your Abundance. Amen.

MIDDLE SCHOOL SUNDAY SKIT
Year A 5th Epiphany, 9 February 2020
St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA
Middle School Sunday Skit Sermon

Matthew 5:13-20
Jesus said, “You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.
“You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

ALL PARTS
Scripture A
Uno
Dos
Girl
News Reporter
Waitress
Victim
Car (non-speaking)
Ambulance (could be 2-5)
Billy Bob
Scripture B
Scripture A: When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. I Corinthians 2:1 We, the Middle School Youth of St. James the Less can say the same thing. No Lofty Words, but maybe some wisdom. You be the judge.

Narrator Uno: Once upon a time, there was girl…
Narrator Dos: A girl?
Narrator Uno: Yes, a girl. And she had a horrible dream one night.

Girl: Ahh. What a great day! It feels fantastic already. I wonder what is going on in the world.
News Reporter: Good morning! We hope you are having a super-duper day. In breaking news, we have nothing. Nothing is happening. Everyone is filled with love and happiness. There is no news, because this is the 437th day of nothing. I think I’ll just sit here and hum lullabies until I drift to sleep. MMM-mm-MMM-mm-MMM-mm.
Girl: Huh? Wait! What?!? That can’t be right!
News Reporter: This just in. What I just said is right. Nada. Zip. Everything is peachy.
[Girl turns off TV.]
Girl: Maybe I need to get going. [Leaves.] I know, I will go and get breakfast.

Uno: But once she left the house, the weirdness just got weirder.
Dos: What do you mean?
Uno: I better just show you, you won’t believe any more than she did.

Waitress: Hey, welcome to Dottie’s Diner! Have a seat.
Girl: Thanks! I’m starved.
Waitress: Sorry to hear that.
Girl: Well, don’t worry. That’s why I came here.
Waitress: For what?
Girl: For breakfast.
Waitress: Well, why did you come here?
Girl: This is a restaurant, a diner. A place to get food!
Waitress: Oh hunny! You’re silly. We don’t serve food!
Girl: Uh, what?!?
Waitress: This is a diner. Why would you think that we would serve food. You sure are a funny one!
Girl: Uh, okay, maybe I’ll just move on.
Waitress: You just got here! Oh, well. Suit yourself.

Dos: That is weird.
Uno: What did I tell you? News with no News.
Dos: A Diner with no Dining.
Uno: Well, that is nothing. Wait, it gets worse…

Girl: Oh hey, there is my friend. Hey, ________.
Victim: Oh hey, ____________.
Girl: Be careful crossing the street!
[Victim gets struck by car and lies injured in the road.]
Girl: Oh, no! I better call the Ambulance! [Dials] Ambulance, ambulance, help! Help!!!
[Group “Ambulance” shows up.]
Ambulance: Don’t worry. What seems to be the problem?
Girl: My friend, __________, got hit by a car.
Ambulance: Well don’t worry! We are here to stop his suffering!
Girl: Thank goodness!
[Ambulance crew then begins to stomp on Victim.]
Girl: Wait! What are you doing?
Ambulance: Duh! Ending his suffering!

Dos: Ahh! That is crazy.
Uno: I know, right?
Dos: Oh look, she is getting rid of the ambulance.
Uno: Well that seems to be the right thing to do.
Dos: What is going on in this place? Is this dream about Crazyville?!?!?
Uno: Wait, there’s more.

Girl: Toto, I don’t think we’re in Kansas any more. __________, come on, let me see if I can get you some help.
Billy Bob: Hey there, welcome to Billy Bob’s Big Boutique. What can I help you with?
Girl: Finally. My friend needs some assistance. I need to buy some stuff.
Billy Bob: Great! I got stuff. What are you looking for?
Girl: First Aid Supplies.
Billy Bob: Great. I have something like that.
Girl: Bandages? Antiseptic Ointment?
Billy Bob: I got some things like that. How about some used tissues for those bandages, and maybe some of this here lemon juice for those open wounds?
Girl: What? Are you trying to kill him?
Billy Bob: Just telling you what we got, mam.
Girl: Don’t you have anything normal?
Billy Bob: We got salt.
Girl: Salt. That is actually something they used to use for wounds.
Billy Bob: Well, see, that’ll work. Now that there is some of our special Billy Bob Special Salt. It is the “sweeeeeetest” salt you ever did see.
Girl: Sweet Salt?
Billy Bob: Billy Bob’s Special Salt. Sweet as can be!
Girl: That’s not SALT! That’s sugar.
Billy Bob: Well aren’t you getting picky! How ‘bout you try one of these here Billy Bob Flashlights. 100% Guaranteed to not work, GUARANTEED! 100% unlightable flashlight. Almost as special as that salt.
Girl: AHHHHH! Get me outta here!

Dos: Finally someone making some sense.
Uno: Nothing is the way it should be.
Dos: Nothing makes sense.
Uno: Salt with no Saltiness.
Dos: Lights with no Light.
Uno: That is not how things are supposed to be.
Dos: We are supposed to do things the way they are supposed to be done. God’s way.
Waitress: Diners should be for Dining.
Victim: Helpers should be for Helping.
Billy Bob: Salt should be Salty.
Girl: And Light should be Lighting up the world. Light was not made to be hidden.

Scripture B: Jesus put it this way. “You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.”
Victim: Hey, I got trampled under foot.
Ambulance:  Yes, you were A-SALTed. Get it? A-SALTed?!?!?

Scripture B: [Shaking head.] Back to Jesus. “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.

Girl: Now go…
ALL: And do likewise!

Wednesday, February 5, 2020

Year A 4th Epiphany WED 2020 True Bread from Heaven

Year A 4th Sunday of Epiphany WEDNESDAY, 9 February 2020
St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA
“The True Bread From Heaven”

Collect: Almighty and everlasting God, you govern all things both in heaven and on earth: Mercifully hear the supplications of your people, and in our time grant us your peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen

Genesis 22:1-18 (The Binding of Isaac)
Hebrews 11:23-31 (The Faith of Moses)
John 6:52-59
The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” So Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever.” He said these things while he was teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum.

We have had quite the readings today, with the Binding of Isaac as our Jewish sisters and brothers call this passage, Hebrews looking at the faith of Moses, and Jesus claiming to be the perfect “Manna.” We are looking at things that are substituting for the perfect what is imperfect. Just before this, we see Abraham sending off Hagar and Ishmael for the promised heir, Isaac. In Hebrews we see the adopted son of Pharaoh being seen for a true child of God (the true King), the leader who will redeem his people, passing through the waters by faith. And Jesus, offering up himself as the true “manna” from heaven, superior to the bread that lasted a day, or two (if it was the Sabbath).

And the highly technical argument that Jesus is making, makes me ponder the nature of the Eucharist, the nature of “manna,” and the what is most real.

On the Eucahrist, I have to agree with Queen Elizabeth, who epitomized the “middle way” thinking which was the foundation of the Anglican Church. If you have not heard it, her poem: This is my Body… (or in Latin)...
Hoc est corpus meum‘Twas Christ the Word that spake it, The same took bread and break it,And as the Word did make it, So I believe and take it.
And yet, in this apparent mystery, we see the underlying paradox of our faith. Jesus is the Word, Jesus is the Bread of Life, Jesus is What We Need (Whatever That May Be). We believe that this will work. We trust. We trust because of what we have been taught, what we have seen at work in the world, and what we hope to be true.

What is now, we hope for something better. We see in a mirror dimly, as Paul says to the Corinthians, but then we shall see face to face.

But that Jesus would compare himself to one of the most curious of details in our faith heritage, the 40 years of sustenance that the Hebrew Children ate while they were wandering for a lifetime in the desert on the way to the Promised Land. The name itself is like unto the Mystery of the Eucharist, with the Hebrew word Manna translating more clearly to “What is it?” We each would have a different answer if we were asked to explain who Jesus is to us, what the Eucharist is to each of us. The growing prominence of the Sacraments was a huge part, probably the biggest, in my coming into the Episcopal Church and all the side implications of a sacramental theology.

And the last thought for the day, the nature of what is most real. Both of these quotes came to mind from our reading of The Little Prince, which our Book Club read last spring. (Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince)

  • And now here is my secret, a very simple secret: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.
  • The most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or touched, they are felt with the heart.

And both of these, for me, point to Jesus Christ. I know that my life has the better story with him in it. I know that he makes no rational sense, but my life only makes sense with Jesus in it. I know that in the bread and wine I find and feel a Truth beyond my ability to describe. I will let Jesus speak to it, for he cannot be surpassed. “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. ...the one who eats this bread will live forever.” Amen

Sunday, February 2, 2020

Year A 4th Epiphany 2020 We Are All Blessed

Year A 4th Sunday of the Epiphany, 2 February 2020
St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA
“We Are All Blessed”

Collect: Almighty and everlasting God, you govern all things both in heaven and on earth: Mercifully hear the supplications of your people, and in our time grant us your peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Micah 6:8
He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice,
and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?
I Corinthians 1:18-31
For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written,
“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,
    and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.”
Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.
Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God. He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption, in order that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”
Matthew 5:1-12
When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

Today’s date, numerically at least, is a palindrome. It is the same, backwards and forwards. 02/02/2020. Reverse it. 02/02/2020. The same. And today when I look at our Gospel, that is what it is. The Great Reversal. Jesus, in his teachings and actions, came to make and show the Great Reversal. “The Last shall be First. The First shall be Last.” “If any among you want to great, let him or her be servant of all.” “Love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you.”

And here we have the beginning of his greatest encapsulation of his teachings on how to reside in the Kingdom of God, recorded together in the Gospel of Matthew in Chapters 5, 6, and 7. I encourage you to read them together, in one sitting. The subtleties and nuances flow into each other, and his argument for following God in a way of grace and being at peace with all is seen very clearly. I encourage you to read Dallas Willard’s book, The Divine Conspiracy, or Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship, if you would like to explore it more.

Our reading from the New Testament reminds us that even WE are a great reversal!
Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.
And looking at rhetoric, one of the key things to grabbing a reader’s or listener’s attention is to start with something that grabs them. A story. A joke. An unexpected direction. In writing it is often called the Lead. And looking at Jesus, who is a Master of appraising the human condition, I truly believe, that we are invited in from an unexpected direction. The people who had wandered out to hear this new preacher were hopeful but doubting, and he needed to start things off with a bang.

But the surprise is taken away for us. Our ears our numb to the scandalous after 2,000 years. 

We all have seen videos of babies seeing a jack-in-the-box for the first time. Some with secure feelings laugh with delight, and those hesitant by nature are terrified and recoil. I saw another great video this last week, when a baby tries ice cream for the first time. The parent had waited so that it was not rock hard, and let the baby try a taste. Having never had ice cream, instead of sticking out a tongue to gain a lick, this baby fish-mouthed it. They finally got some, and their eyes widened, and before the parent could pull it away, the baby had dug both fists into the sides of the scoop and that cone was not going anywhere. The baby pulled the scoop in and starting going to town. Surprise. Delight. Yes, I believe Jesus begins this sermon with just that kind of start.

The problem, though, is us. We do not hear it that way. We do not hear it as they heard it.

The Beatitudes, this litany of the blesseds, is not some checklist of things that we can do or be so that we can be blessed. Jesus is declaring openly to all that his way of doing things, God’s way of doing things, goes directly against the powers that be and the assumptions that had been handed on for centuries.

The blessed are rich and good and respected. We still hang on to this bad theology. When things are going great, we too often say, “We are blessed.” Or, “I must be living right.” Grateful would be a much better word than blessed, and a better theology. And going against this idea is where Jesus starts. He pulls out a double-barrel of radical theology, and takes aim. Look at the list. Most of us would not sign up for any of these.

Poor-in-spirit. Mourning. Meek. Hungry. Thirsty. Merciful. Pure-in-heart. Peacemakers. Persecuted. Reviled. Slandered. 

This is not a wanna-be kind of list. Too often I have heard it taught or preached that way. This is not a checklist on how to get blessed.

So, Rock, what are you getting at? Jesus came to proclaim the Kingdom of God is at hand, so we should Repent. We have spoken on this the last two Sundays. I will not beat a dead horse, but if you need more on that, both sermons are online. (rev.rocks) And what we see is that that the old way of seeing things, the old way of doing religion was about to be shaken up.

His radical way of loving God and everybody was such a threat to the powers that be he was killed. That type of authority he brought was terrifying. The oldest rule in politics, if you cannot stop the message, attack the messenger. What was so dangerous about his message?

You can be “blessed,” even if… You see, God’s love, God’s Kingdom is open to any and all. We do not hear it as radical because we have been raised in it, steeped in it. Our ears have become numb. But this was news, Good News, Great News, when Jesus starts his sermon this way.

The word blessed is actually quite close to meaning “happy.” So Jesus is saying this…

You’re happified, even when you are Poor-in-spirit, or Mourning, or Meek. Picture Jesus walking through the crowd, and seeing someone slunking on the edge of the crowd. Or someone in sackcloth and ashes, weeping openly. Or the “loser” who would never have been picked being singled out. (Just like Zaccheus over in Luke’s Gospel.) Our condition in the moment does not override our identity in God. We are loved by God where we are, and in who we are. Our momentary does not define our belovedness.

This is the definition of Grace. There is nothing that can make God love you any more, and nothing that can make God love you any less. (Brennan Manning) And Jesus starts his sermon in this radical way, declaring that the people were never let in to the party were actually on the VIP list. And the religious authorities who were acting as God’s bouncers were stopping people at the door.

Jesus starts his sermon saying that no matter where we are, no matter what we have done, this message is for us. In God’s Kingdom we all belong. Jesus came to say it, show it, and enable it. And when this radical message was attempted to be silenced, the Powers that Be guaranteed that it would be the cruxpoint of history. From that moment the world changed.

From the age of Micah the prophet, he summed up what the Lord requires of us.  
He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8)
That is the doing. But the doing does not change our identity. Sometimes we have to see that we belong before we can believe. And Jesus says just that. We belong. We are at home. And as we see ourselves in that reality, then we can begin the work of furthering the Kingdom by doing Justice, loving Kindness, and walking Humbly with our God. It is not getting right before we begin. My favorite hymn has this line, “If you tarry till you’re better, you will never come at all.” If we wait till we get things perfect in us, that is salvation through our work and effort, and Scripture repeatedly shows us that the Grace of God in Christ is the only thing that can accomplish that. 

We must belong first. We must see our selves as beloved. We must see ourselves as Blessed. That is why Jesus can preach this radical, life-changing message. Open up your bulletins and let’s read them together. And let’s read them like they are really good news.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
Amen.

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Year A 3rd Epiphany WED 2020 The Spittin' Image

Year A 3rd Sunday of the Epiphany WEDNESDAY 29 January 2020
St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA
“The Spittin' Image”

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

John 5:19-29
Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, the Son can do nothing on his own, but only what he sees the Father doing; for whatever the Father does, the Son does likewise. The Father loves the Son and shows him all that he himself is doing; and he will show him greater works than these, so that you will be astonished. Indeed, just as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, so also the Son gives life to whomever he wishes. The Father judges no one but has given all judgment to the Son, so that all may honor the Son just as they honor the Father. Anyone who does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent him. Very truly, I tell you, anyone who hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life, and does not come under judgment, but has passed from death to life.

“Very truly, I tell you, the hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live. For just as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself; and he has given him authority to execute judgment, because he is the Son of Man. Do not be astonished at this; for the hour is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and will come out—those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of condemnation.

My dad had polio when he was 9 and spent a year in hospital and at home recovering. The doctors caught it, and saved his life. In so doing, they had to cut a big hunk out of his right buttock. No one would know this being covered by his pants, but the lack of muscle back there caused him to have a slight limp. I learned to walk by watching my dad, and so I occasionally, when my guard is down people will ask me, “Are you limping?” Now it does not help that my right leg is a half an inch shorter than my left, so I already have to work at it, but the muscle memory of learning to walk like my father has never left me. My mom used to say that watching the two of us side by side was a sight, especially when I was very young. I was the spittin’ image, as the phrase goes.

So if you see me after the second service, between answering 20 questions on my way to Coffee Hour, you may notice me favoring my right leg. Now you know why, and you can just not worry. It’s not going to get better. When I am not tired I compensate, but when I go back to the unpolished, natural state, I walk like my dad did. Limp and all.

Jesus walked like his father, too. His father in heaven, that is. He so resembled the Father that people began to see the likeness. I do not believe that was accidental.
Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, the Son can do nothing on his own, but only what he sees the Father doing; for whatever the Father does, the Son does likewise.”
To use a modern phrase, Jesus was God’s Mini-Me. I was my dad’s. It touches my heart around here when I see family generations, and I notice the same sly grin, the tone of the laugh, the twinkle of an eye that goes from generation to generation down the line.

Jesus not only walked like God would have on the earth, he calls, encourages, and enables us to walk the walk and talk the talk, just like he did.
Very truly, I tell you, anyone who hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life, and does not come under judgment, but has passed from death to life.
We are to be the Spittin’ Image of Christ. But here and now, and in the world to come.

The first followers were made fun of for it, and in Antioch, the believers in Jesus’ Way of following God were derided with the name “Christian.” That means “little Christs.” Little Messiahs. Mini-Jesuses. It was telling.

At Wilbur Lawrence’s funeral it was neat to see the Lawrence finger that got passed down. And I will see if one of my kids or grandkids one day FAR OFF will have the Higgins limp. But my prayer for each and everyone of us, is that when people see us they see a little bit of Jesus, a loving sense that we are like the one who made, shaped, us, saved us, and guides us. Amen.

Sunday, January 26, 2020

Year A 3rd Epiphany 2020 Cast Down Your Nets

Year A 3rd Sunday of Epiphany, 26 January 2020
St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA
“Cast Down Your Nets”

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

Matthew 4:12-23
When Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled:
“Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali,
on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles—
the people who sat in darkness
have seen a great light,
and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death
light has dawned.”
From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” Immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.
Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.


The words of the prophet, Isaiah:
The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light.” 
We heard this on Christmas Eve, and we hear it this morning sitting in the sunlight. We hear again the hope that is there. We hear the hope of a backwater region in a minor edge territory of small kingdom in the mighty Empire of Rome.

Last week we heard from the Gospel of John how Andrew and another of John the Baptizer’s apostles were invited to “Come and See” by this one who their master pointed out to be the Anointed.

This week we see the hope beginning, we see the settling of Jesus in this area, neighboring his hometown of Nazareth, and how it fulfilled the ancient prophecy of Isaiah. And we hear his invitation to those along the shore to come and follow him.
There is a lot implied in his invitation. Recognition of his authority. Hope for something better than what they have.
...for those who sat in the region and shadow of death, light has dawned.
Death, to a Dawn. This is so much more than a simple, “Hey, y’all come on.” This is a radical life shift, an invitation to leave the old behind and embrace the new.

You see, we have a phrase. “Timing is everything.” A horrible joke, at the right moment, will bring down the house. A kind word, strategically placed, can redirect a life. An open door, when there seems to be no hope, can change the world even if it is just for one person.

St. Paul had a phrase for it, “the fullness of time” which you hear often in our Eucharistic prayers. From Galatians 4 Paul speaks to this long awaited moment:
4 But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son…
We have even Jesus awaiting the exact moment, John’s ministry as the Preparer of the Way was done. Imprisoned for crying out against corrupt and immoral politicians, Jesus knew that his moment, THE moment had arrived.

He left his hometown, his family, his “known” and departed for the course that would direct the rest of his life. Making Capernaum his homebase, this teacher begins to proclaim a message based around a single metaphor.
From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

And for him to get his message out, he needs a team to make it possible. He needs people who can not only say the words, but try to live them out in their own lives. As they take on these disciplines, they take on a new role, that of disciples to a teacher or master. They attempt to model this life change he offers them to do.

Saying that they were following Jesus, and expecting to not do anything differently would be just like saying you belong to a gym and never going. You may pay the fees, but is it doing anything for you? Saying you belong, and following a discipline ARE NOT, CANNOT be equal.

Remember his message that he proclaimed, “Repent.” Turn around, about face, do a 180. However you want to say it, redirect for God’s Kingdom has come near. Is at hand, within your reach, waiting in the curtains.

So you know the context of today’s reading, it is after the baptism in the Jordan and Jesus’ temptations in the desert. While he was fasting in the desert, John is imprisoned. After today’s reading, Jesus’ reputation grows as he preaches and heals, which leads to Chapters 5 through 7 and what we call the Sermon on the Mount.

We are not talking about making things nice. We are not about taking what is and stepping it up a notch. Matthew says that he was teaching, preaching, and healing. Luke gives us a few more details. When Jesus went to the synagogue in his home town he read another prophecy from Isaiah. [From Luke 4]
18 ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
   because he has anointed me
     to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
   and recovery of sight to the blind,
     to let the oppressed go free,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’
20And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. 21Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’
What did Jesus’ coming and ministry mean? It was an open and direct threat to the Powers that Be. It was a fulfillment of “God’s Preferential Option for the Poor” that is throughout Scripture. [This phrase comes from the Jesuits (1968), but is woven through all of Scripture.]

When Jesus was calling his new followers, it was signing for them a likely death warrant, and according to church tradition it did. “Take up your cross and follow me.” Words mean things. They were not out for a Sunday stroll.

Jesus called them to start where they were and then he guided them to change themselves, change their lives, and in so doing, change the world.

As we read we think that the change was immediate and comprehensive. The words are there, “Immediately they left their nets and followed him..” But all of us know that this is not how most changes take place. Peter, we know, rebukes Jesus when he speaks about his upcoming crucifixion. And he gets called Satan for it. “Get behind me, Satan.” [Just after the transfiguration and Peter’s confession.] And even more, we know that Peter denied Jesus three times on what we call Maundy Thursday.

Andrew and James both disappear at the Crucifixion, nowhere to be seen. And if John is the Gospel of John’s “disciple that Jesus loved” then only John stood by him on that most holy day. There are lots of other examples, but they may have dropped their nets for a day, but a lifetime of muscle memory is hard to shake.

While the disciples immediately cast down their nets, nets are designed to keep you ensnared. Some are knotted so that the more you struggle, the tighter they become. As the disciples easily dropped their nets, they had a hard time letting them go. When Jesus died, the disciples, in the Gospel of John, headed back to their nets and went fishing again. It is so easy to head back to our old ways and habits.

Nets are designed to take hold and not let go. And we all have nets. Nets we use, the tools we have to make our way in the world. And we all are ensnared in nets. Things that cling to closely, and will not let us go. What are your nets? When we hear Jesus’ invitation, do we drop them? Immediately? Or do we miss the feel of them in our hand, calluses worn into our flesh of years of lift, cast, draw, repeat? Friends, Jesus came so that we can walk away, truly walk away. And when we head back to the familiar, the comfortable, the safe and secure, he lovingly invites us to his way, the new way, the “high” way of his call on our lives.

Last Sunday I closed with these sentences: “We hold the same conversation. We get the same invitation. Thanks be to God.” I said it and I mean it. And it is as applicable today as last week’s Gospel.

“Repent, for the Kingdom of God has come near.” “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” That world is still being made. It is being made by you with the choices you make, and lives you lead. That world is within our grasp, and it has been for 2,000 years. We hear echoes of it in the prayers we pray, like “On earth as it is in heaven” or “Forgive us as we forgive others.” Are they as apparent in our actions? We have caught glimpses of it when the Church in the name of Christ has set up orphanages, leper colonies, and hospitals, fought for living wages and access to healthcare. It comes true when we welcome the foreigner and the stranger in our midst. It has been made real when we have done anything for those in need, the Least of These, for when we did it to them we did it for, and more importantly TO Jesus.

Friends, there is still a Kingdom of the World, and there is a Kingdom of God. There is Empire and there is Jesus. Jesus says, “Follow me.”

What net are you holding? What net did you think you dropped that still has a hold of you? What path will you choose? Who’s voice will you follow?

When you choose Jesus’ way, then you proclaim with your life Good News! Not "myeh" news, not okay news, you preach Good News, life-giving, transformative, exuberant, world-shaking Good News with what you say, and more importantly, in what you do.

Lord, help me to let go of my nets, for good, and come follow you. Amen

Sunday, January 19, 2020

Year A 2nd Epiphany 2020 Two Questions & A Statement

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Look, here is the Lamb of God!”

“What are you looking for?”

“Rabbi, where are you staying?”

“Come and see.”

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

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, January 12, 2020

Year A 1st Epiphany 2020 Because He First Loved Me

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Sunday, January 5, 2020

Year A Epiphany 2020 Guide Our Steps

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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