Wednesday, March 29, 2023

Year A Lent 5 WED 2023 Reconciled

 Year A Lent 5 WEDNESDAY, 29 March 2023

St. Paul’s Memorial Episcopal, Charlottesville, VA


Collect: Almighty God our heavenly Father, renew in us the gifts of your mercy; increase our faith, strengthen our hope, enlighten our understanding, widen our charity, and make us ready to serve you; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Matthew 5:21-24

“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder,’ and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment, and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council, and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire. So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.”

Good evening. It is a pleasure to be back with you. My name is Rock Higgins, and I am the Rector at St. James the Less in Ashland, and I am also the Pilgrimage Lead for the Triangle of Hope. I have spoken here about that in the past. And I am so happy that St. Paul’s Memorial has three of our 13 pilgrims going to Liverpool this summer!

One of the key components of our work is Reconciliation. It is hard, uncomfortable, and life-changing work. The problem is that we have watered down what Reconciliation means. 

  • Reconciliation is not just saying sorry. It is so much more than sorry.

  • Reconciliation is not tolerance. Putting up with someone, allowing them the opportunity to exist is not reconciliation.

  • Reconciliation is not giving acknowledgement of past sins.

  • It is all these things and SO MUCH MORE.

The root word of Reconciliation is fascinating. Re- means to do or have again. -con- means with or within. But then we get to -cilia. Latin from cilia, small hairs, literally eyelashes. So when we work toward reconciliation, the loose meaning is to again be friendly with another, but literally it means to again be within eyelash distance from one another. We are talking about being that close that we can see the eyelashes of, or even give butterfly kisses distance. We smell their breath and see their blemishes and they ours. It is about regaining an intimacy far beyond saying sorry. Far beyond tolerance. It means getting in close, where we cannot hide our faults.

The Triangle of Hope is about Reconciliation with partners doing the same work in Liverpool, England where their glorious cathedral is built on wealth made from enslaving God’s children. It is working with our siblings in Kumasi, Ghana, the capital of the Ashanti tribe, a mighty warrior tribe who captured their brothers and sisters and sold them to the British and others to be taken to foreign lands and never be seen again. The door at the Cape Coast Slave Castle in Ghana was called the Door of No Return.

As Romans says, “None are righteous, no not one.” [Romans 3:10] We all are complicit, Virginia, Liverpool, and Kumasi, and we all have the work of Reconciliation to do with each other and with our heritage of enslaving God’s children in the horrible practices of the Transatlantic Slave Trade.

But I started with the very hard passage from the Sermon on the Mount because Jesus calls us to be proactive in Reconciliation. First he starts with our hearts, and one of the big Ten (Commandments) that we should not murder, but he goes beyond that. Not murdering is the bare minimum. If my kid came home from school and said, “Hey Dad, I did well today. I did not murder anyone! You should be proud!” I would be more worried than proud, I would expect nothing less.

But then Jesus gets to the seed that leads to murder, our belittling and “other-ing” of others calling them names and making them feel inferior, shamed, or judged. Jesus says we doom ourselves if we start down that path. God help us all! It is so much more that we all do.

I will think of the things I say when someone cuts me off in traffic. I think of the things I think when someone differs with me politically or takes a stand on a social issue. I can disagree with them, but when I make them “Other” I begin that slippery slope that Jesus warned us against.

I know for me, the canary in the coalmine, my early warning system in dealing with other people is when I begin to stop giving them the benefit of the doubt. When I notice that I double check and second guess someone, it is time for me to pay attention to that relationship. Now it may be well-deserved, but instead of dismissing them maybe I can help them be and do better. We are called to be as innocent as doves and as wise as serpents, so Jesus does not want us to be chumps. But maybe we can help people grow from where they are instead of saying that that is just Joe being Joe. That is that slippery slope again.

Don’t dismiss and “other” people, but then Jesus goes even further. “So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.” God prioritizes our relationships. If someone has something against us, it is up to us to seek reconciliation! They are holding the grudge, and we seek to clean the air. God says it is even more important to do that work than anything we can give at the altar.

As I John teaches: “Those who say, “I love God,” and hate a brother or sister are liars, for those who do not love a brother or sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.” (4:20-21) 

How do we show we love God? It is in how we love each other, even those who hate us, hold grudges against us, and maybe even find it impossible to forgive us. We seek amends and may that lead to “again being within eyelash distance of one another.” Or, rather, to be Reconciled. May God make it so in our lives. Amen

Monday, March 27, 2023

Year A Lent 5 2023 Unbound

 Year A Lent 5, 26 March 2023

St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA


Collect: Almighty God, you alone can bring into order the unruly wills and affections of sinners: Grant your people grace to love what you command and desire what you promise; that, among the swift and varied changes of the world, our hearts may surely there be fixed where true joys are to be found; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

John 11:1-45

Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” But when Jesus heard it, he said, “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.

Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.” The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?” Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world. But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.” After saying this, he told them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.” The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.” Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep. Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead. For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”

When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”

When she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary, and told her privately, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.” And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. The Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there. When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus began to weep. So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”

Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”

Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.

From our Ezekiel reading this morning, that unforgettable image of the Valley of Dry Bones is intentionally terrifying. It was supposed to be shocking. That is why the people of God cried out, 

“Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.”

“OUR HOPE IS LOST.” Have you ever felt like that? I know I have in darker days, when I could not imagine a way out.

But then, somehow, someway, a way breaks through, and I am found and brought back home into the light. When we are without Hope, lost in our despair, our brains are not working. No matter how rational you are, or you think you are, when we are crushed we are not able to function. I have seen it time, and time, and time again.

Often when I am working with families immediately in their grief, the conversations jump to details. Anything to avoid the hurt and the pain. Even though they “think” that is what they are supposed to do, they do not know how floundering they are. And that is why they have a community of support, friends bringing meals, neighbors bringing over the mail, pastors with instructions like do this, then this, then this. In our Hopelessness, God steps in, and our loved ones step in and help us not only resurrect, but something more.

It is through the power of God that we see the metaphor of the Dry Bones re-incarnate them and breathe into them the Breath of Life. But notice that God invites Ezekiel in on the act. “Prophesy, and say to them, ‘Thus says the Lord God!’” God may do the resurrection, but we also have a part to play.

Why? Because God says so. I wish I could give a better answer, but in this image of Resurrection we see that is how God works. In John’s reading about the death and resurrection of Lazarus, it is no different.

We see the deep and heartbreaking grief of Mary and Martha. Both said, “Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died.” This could have been accusatory, or a statement of faith. We cannot know from just the words. The letters making the words miss the inflection. That is why we came up with emoji. From Martha’s addition, “But even now I know God will give you whatever you ask of him.” makes me think that it is, for her at least, a statement affirming her faith instead of an indictment of Jesus’ delay. 

Lazarus had died. And Jesus wept. These are well-known parts of the story. In the heat of the environment, it was so important to seal him into a tomb as quickly as possible. The unmistakable odor of decay was already there, no one could deny. “Lord, there is already a stench because he has been dead for four days.”

We hear the stench part, but miss the four days. This was an even more important detail to those who were with Jesus that day. In Jewish understanding, the tradition is to bury a body within a day, and no more than three if at all possible. There is nothing done to the body. It is still to this day, washed, wrapped in a shroud, and put in a simple pine box. Back then, they would have foregone the pine box for placement in a tomb to decay and decompose for a year till when the bones could be placed into a smaller vessel, an ossuary just big enough for the full skeleton packed tight, the length of the thigh bone. There may be aromatics added to help alleviate the smell, but nothing to mitigate the decomposition. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

But we cannot gloss over the four days. In Jewish mysticism, the soul of the deceased would hover near the body for three days. At four days the soul would have been gone and gone for good, depending on the Jewish thinker to the place of the Dead (Sheol) or into the Ether. This is what is so important to the witnesses. How much power did Jesus even have here? Could he recall a soul from the Great Beyond? Was he all that? They would see.

Believers, we are a people of the Resurrection, but like with Ezekiel needing to prophesy, we see here as well that we are called to get in on the Resurrection business.

When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” 

Just like God commanding the light to be, and it was, Jesus commands his friend to Come Out!

The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. 

Notice that it was “the Dead Man” came out. Not Lazarus. There was no question in their mind. Lazarus was dead and was alive again. Forever he would be known for this. The Dead Man who Jesus raised. Then…

Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.” Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.

Jesus called forth, but he invited those who were close to him to UNBIND him.

Friends, so often that is the role of the Church of Christ. Jesus provides redemption and resurrection, for that can only come from God. But how often is it a lifelong task to unbind ourselves from the trappings of death? As Hebrews puts it, “Those sins that cling so closely…”

In our culture that celebrates the mythos of “pulling ourselves up by the bootstraps,” and being “a self-made man” or person, this idea of having to lean on others is hard to hear and even harder to do.

But friends, we are made for community. We are made for intimacy and necessity. Not a one of us, NOT A ONE OF US, can make it on our own. I am because WE ARE. I need you. You need us. 

My wife tells a story of her grandfather who was a homesteader in Alaska. He fell on a frozen lake while out alone and struggled for hours in isolation, and that was when he knew it was time to head back to town for good. It took months to close up his cabin, but that day taught him it was time to head back to community. As self-reliant as he was, he knew he could not make it on his own. And it was not for lack of trying.

When our hope is lost, and we see no way out, know this. Resurrection comes from God, and together our Unbinding from those trappings of death which cling so closely is why we have each other. You help me get free of the death shroud still holding on in me, and I you, and you her, and her him, and so on, and so on, and so on.

Together we can get unbound. And together we can see the miracles of God who loves us, calls us out of Death itself, and allows those around us to believe that this story that began so very long ago is not yet done. It continues on with us, and in us, and through us. Thanks be to God.

When others see God at work in us, and see what Jesus does, may they, like those around Lazarus, “believe in him.” Amen

Wednesday, March 15, 2023

Year A Lent 3 WED 2023 Of Shackles and Sandbags

 Year A Lent 3 WEDNESDAY, 15 March 2023

St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA

“Of Shackles and Sandbags”

Collect: Give ear to our prayers, O Lord, and direct the way of your servants in safety under your protection, that, amid all the changes of our earthly pilgrimage, we may be guarded by your mighty aid; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Matthew 5:17–19

Jesus said, “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."

In our readings we hear of how we are expected to be, whether the nation of God’s righteous in Deuteronomy, or the Reconciled through Christ in Romans. God wants us righteous, and enables, empowers, and encourages us to be just that.

In the novel The Life of Pi, the author shares stories of Zoo animals who were “liberated” by well-meaning activists who opened up their cages to “set them free.” All it did was terrify the animals, who might run to get away from the stress-filled situation, but would often get back to their “known territory” (aka their “enclosure”) as fast as they possibly could. Sometimes the comfortable cage is what we seek so we can be free of the responsibility of living life truly liberated.

In a similar way, they say if you tie an elephant to a stake when it is young it will learn obsolescence. When older, and more than powerful enough to break free, they will stay tied to the stake because their whole life they were conditioned to stay put.

God wanted more for us than that. God wanted us to have life and have it to the full. “For Freedom Christ has set us Free,” says St Paul. (Galatians 5:1) But why then, do we get Rules? Why would Jesus say what he said in the Sermon on the Mount?

“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.”

True Freedom comes in being What We Ought To Be. The Libertine thinks that Freedom comes in Doing Whatever We Want. This is a distinct and marked difference.

We are Free in Christ. Free to be who God intended us to be.

Like the Founders of this nation knew that our Freedom was not without limits. Life, Liberty, the Pursuit of Happiness. Yes. But that requires an educated electorate with skin in the game. That meant white male  landowners when they said all men were created equal. We have come to a bigger, better, and more full understanding of that since then, thanks be to God.

Jesus knew that when he said we were free, that libertine concept would slink in. But our freedom is from what held us back, sin, judgment, self-destruction. Our Freedom is for us to be free to grow into the fullness of who God made us to be.

The Laws and Instructions of God are not shackles that hold us back. God’s laws for us are instructions for how we can be fully ourselves. Instead of shackles holding us back, as mentioned, we are hot air balloons, and sins, foibles, conditionings are the weights holding us back from the heights we are called to soar! We are meant to be free, being directed by the Holy Spirit like the hot air balloons are by the wind.

Our perspective, and in this case our metaphors, make all the difference. The Rules are the Rules for us to Win Life, not hinder our Fun. God dreams a dream of a good life, blessed, fruitful, and happy for us. When we run from the plan, we run from God’s Dream for us.

Embrace the Laws, or Rules, or I as I like to think of them, Instructions for the Best from Life. Freedom is found there, for all of us. Amen

Sunday, March 12, 2023

Year A Lent 3 2023 Thirsty

 Year A Lent 3, 12 March 2023

St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA



Almighty God, you know that we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves: Keep us both outwardly in our bodies and inwardly in our souls, that we may be defended from all adversities which may happen to the body, and from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

John 4:5-42

Jesus came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon.

A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.) Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” The woman said to him, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?” Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.”

Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come back.” The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!” The woman said to him, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.” Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming” (who is called Christ). “When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.” Jesus said to her, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.”

Just then his disciples came. They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, “What do you want?” or, “Why are you speaking with her?” Then the woman left her water jar and went back to the city. She said to the people, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” They left the city and were on their way to him.

Meanwhile the disciples were urging him, “Rabbi, eat something.” But he said to them, “I have food to eat that you do not know about.” So the disciples said to one another, “Surely no one has brought him something to eat?” Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work. Do you not say, ‘Four months more, then comes the harvest’? But I tell you, look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting. The reaper is already receiving wages and is gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. For here the saying holds true, ‘One sows and another reaps.’ I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor. Others have labored, and you have entered into their labor.”

Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me everything I have ever done.” So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there two days. And many more believed because of his word. They said to the woman, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world.”

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” Matthew 5:6

Jesus said to them, ‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.’ John 6:35

On the last day of the festival, the great day, while Jesus was standing there, he cried out, ‘Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, “Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.”’ John 7:37-38

After this, when Jesus knew that all was now finished, he said (in order to fulfill the scripture), ‘I am thirsty.’ John 19:28

Jesus promises to quench our thirst. And yes, in today’s Gospel reading, and on the cross, Jesus got thirsty.

Thirst is a human need. We all know what it is like to be thirsty. In our age where we have access to so many beverage choices, it is surprising that 75% of us are chronically dehydrated, supposedly. (Source) Now that stat has been in question by the medical community, but suffice to say, we should all be drinking more water. It comprises approximately 60% of you if you are a man, 55% if you are a woman. (Source

Water is life. Period.

One of my favorite non-fiction books is “In The Heart of the Sea” by Nathaniel Philbrick where he tells the tale of the whaleship Essex and its destruction by a sperm whale in the Pacific. This true story was the foundation of the novel Moby Dick by Herman Melville. Beyond belief, the suffering of the survivors is an even more horrific story than the fiction account. Philbrick goes into agonizing detail on many subjects, and one of them is thirst. Picture yourself in a small boat in the middle of the Pacific, no shade from the sun, no land for hundreds of miles, and you are thirsty. This is a lengthy quote, but this stayed with me so long, I feel the need to share it in its entirety.

“In 1906, W. J. McGee, Director of the St. Louis Public Museum, published one of the most detailed and graphic descriptions of the ravages of extreme dehydration ever recorded. McGee's account was based on the experiences of Pablo Valencia, a forty-year-old sailor-turned-prospector, who survived almost seven days in the Arizona desert without water. The only liquid Valencia drank during his ordeal was the few drops of moisture he was able to extract from a scorpion and his own urine, which he collected each day in his canteen.” (p. 126)

[The next phase] “McGee describes as the "cotton-mouth" phase of thirst. Saliva becomes thick and foul-tasting; the tongue clings irritatingly to the teeth and the roof of the mouth.

“Even though speech is difficult, sufferers are often moved to complain ceaselessly about their thirst until their voices become so cracked and hoarse that they can speak no more. A lump seems to form in the throat, causing the sufferer to swallow repeatedly in a vain attempt to dislodge it. Severe pain is felt in the head and neck. The face feels full due to the shrinking of the skin. Hearing is affected, and many people begin to hallucinate.

“…The tongue hardens into what McGee describes as "a senseless weight, swinging on the still-soft root and striking foreignly against the teeth." Speech becomes impossible, although sufferers are known to moan and bellow. Next is the "blood sweats" phase, involving "a progressive mummification of the initially living body." The tongue swells to such proportions that it squeezes past the jaws. The eyelids crack and the eyeballs begin to weep tears of blood.

“The throat is so swollen that breathing becomes difficult, creating an incongruous yet terrifying sensation of drowning. Finally, as the power of the sun inexorably draws the remaining moisture from the body, there is "living death," the state into which Pablo Valencia had entered when McGee discovered him on a desert trail, crawling on his hands and knees:

“[H]is lips had disappeared as if amputated, leaving low edges of blackened tissue; his teeth and gums projected like those of a skinned animal, but the flesh was black and dry as a hank of jerky; his nose was withered and shrunken to half its length, and the nostril-lining showing black; his eyes were set in a wink-less stare, with surrounding skin so contracted as to expose the conjunctiva, itself black as the gums . ..; his skin [had] generally turned a ghastly purplish yet ashen gray, with great livid blotches and streaks; his lower legs and feet, with forearms and hands, were torn and scratched by contact with thorns and sharp rocks, yet even the freshest cuts were so many scratches in dry leather, without trace of blood.” pp. 127-128

Most of us have never truly been thirsty, but the fight to avoid what I have just described is so deeply woven into our DNA, when we are thirsty it becomes an obsession. We have to have a drink, and we have to have it right now. For most of us, that is something easily remedied, so we do not ever, not once, truly think about it.

When we see the woman at the well, wanting to get her basic needs met, she probably was out there when she was to avoid people. The heat of the day is not the time to go and get water, unless one has no choice. At noon she wanders out, I think to be alone and avoid the ridicule and scorn. She is ashamed enough on her own without anyone else adding to it. And then she sees Jesus at Jacob’s Well. And he has the audacity to ask for water.

He was thirsty. She was thirsty. But they had thirsts for very different things. 

As is his fashion, Jesus stepped in, reframed the question and asked her to step up to a deeper level of meaning and purpose. 

I love when the disciples showed up Jesus is so ebullient that he does not want lunch, he has been filled with that higher meaning and purpose. Floating on Cloud 9 as we might say.

As we continue on the road to Jerusalem in Holy Week, for what do you hunger? For what do you thirst?

Jesus desired life change for the woman he encountered. It sounded like she had had such a hard life. I am glad that Jesus enabled her to start fresh, to have a do-over. Lent enables us all to have that opportunity.

Yesterday on our Vestry Retreat, we spent time talking and getting to know one another. We talked about our callings and the promptings of the Holy Spirit. Both are so important. The Holy Spirit prompted the woman at the well to run into Sychar and tell everyone that she had found the Messiah. Prompting. Her Call may be something completely different.

Do not confuse the Call of God in your life as an excuse to avoid the Prompting you may receive. Someone recently told me a story of how they felt a nudge to help someone pay for something at the store they needed, but could not afford. Diapers for a newborn. They were not called to do that, but standing in line behind them, they heard the prompting of the Spirit and did something about it. The Good Samaritan probably was not called to Medical Missions, but when someone is lying in your path, I think the Holy Spirit is prompting you to do something about it. If you have the ability to respond, you have the Response-ability.

Jesus promised us when we give a cup of cold water in his name it is the same as doing it to him.

The Thirst Jesus felt that day he asked the woman to respond to. A cup of water from the well, that is all. But we all have needs. Food. Water. Shelter. And as we move up Maslow’s Hierarchy, the needs get more profound and harder to fulfill. The Spirit Prompts us to answer the easier needs. Water. Diapers. Food. The Spirit Calls us to do the harder work together.

The Call of God on our lives is to answer the Soul Thirst that people have. The philosopher Blaise Pascal put it this way. “There is a God-shaped vacuum in the heart of each man which cannot be satisfied by any created thing but only by God the Creator, made known through Jesus Christ.” The water Jesus offered to the woman, and offers to all of us today, is for that Soul Thirst.

The Promptings of God and the Call of God, both are the work of the Church, and both are things you can do. At our Vestry retreat we talked about doing the work of the Promptings and the Callings, the Bodily Thirsts and the Soul Thirsts. Why? Because that is why we are here, and this is what we do, “THAT THE WORLD THROUGH HIM MIGHT BE SAVED!” [John 3:17]

As Jesus promised: 

‘Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, 

and let the one who believes in me drink. 

As the scripture has said, 

“Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.”’ 

John 7:37-38 Amen

Wednesday, March 8, 2023

Year A Lent 2 WED 2023 A Different Way

 Year A Lent 2 WEDNESDAY, 8 March 2023

St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA

“A Different Way”

Collect: O God, you so loved the world that you gave your only- begotten Son to reconcile earth with heaven: Grant that we, loving you above all things, may love our friends in you, and our enemies for your sake; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Matthew 20:17–28

While Jesus was going up to Jerusalem, he took the twelve disciples aside by themselves, and said to them on the way, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified; and on the third day he will be raised.”

Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee came to him with her sons, and kneeling before him, she asked a favor of him. And he said to her, “What do you want?” She said to him, “Declare that these two sons of mine will sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom.” But Jesus answered, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?” They said to him, “We are able.” He said to them, “You will indeed drink my cup, but to sit at my right hand and at my left, this is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father.” 

When the ten heard it, they were angry with the two brothers. But Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

In the Gospel’s we call Jesus’ phrase, “The last shall be first and the first last,” the Great Reversal. And in today’s text we have two examples of the Great Reversal playing out.

We have Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Messiah, and three of his closest witness his Transfiguration. We see that Jesus is, to them at least, the Anointed One. The Chosen Messiah long-awaited. And then Jesus comes out with this.

“[The Religious Leaders] will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified; and on the third day he will be raised.”

Come on, Jesus, that is not how things are supposed to go. Don’t even joke like that. Of course God would never let that happen. Heck, we would never let that happen. We would defend you! We would fight for you! We would die for you!

We see all that come up in the coming weeks, and still he repeats this prediction of his crucifixion and third day resuscitation. Does Jesus not get it? What is up with this doom and gloom?

But still he repeats it.

The Triumphal Procession that we call Palm Sunday makes it even more confusing for those closest to him. That is what they expected, spontaneous applause and resounding approval. But they did not expect what Jesus kept telling them was going to be the case.

How often do we do the same?

The Last shall be first, and the First last. The Great Reversal.

And then we get the second story where James and John’s mom sidles up to Jesus to make sure her boys are numbers 1 & 2 in Jesus coming kingdom. 

In Jesus’ own way he asks the question, “Do you even know what you are asking about?” His version, “Can you drink from the same cup as me?” They think so. Ignorance, they say, is bliss.

But then Jesus assures them that even though the world may work this way, the Kingdom of God does not. It does not even work that way for Jesus.

“...whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

Nobody, not a one of us is to rest on our laurels, or our birthright, or on who we know. Service is the key to the way it works in the Kingdom.

The Last, to the world, is first, and the First, to the world, is last. The Great Reversal. 

In Jesus’ modeling for us, we see a different way to not just operate, but to be. As hard as it is to navigate this life, it is in giving our best to all that is the path Jesus calls us to follow. And he went before us, showing us the way. 

This is not easy or obvious. But the longer I live the more I see it to be true. Thank your for your attempts to live the Great Reversal. Pray for me, as I pray for you, that we all may “see more clearly, love more dearly, and follow more nearly day by day.” Amen

Sunday, March 5, 2023

Year A Lent 2 2023 That The World Might Be Saved

 Year A Lent 2, 5 March 2023

St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA

“That The World Might Be Saved”

Collect: O God, whose glory it is always to have mercy: Be gracious to all who have gone astray from your ways, and bring them again with penitent hearts and steadfast faith to embrace and hold fast the unchangeable truth of your Word, Jesus Christ your Son; who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

John 3:1-17

There was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?

“Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

Today is the day of our Annual Meeting. A day when we gather to look back, and look ahead. To check on how things are, and the anticipated steps for the coming year. And on this annual “State of the Church” gathering, it is so important for us to spend a little time on what is most important.

It is not about leadership. It is not about finances. It is not about hopes and wishes. It is not reminiscences or regrets. Friends, it is about faith.

Faith is the crux and the key, and as the shepherd of this flock I must ask how is your belief? We were talking about fundraising the other day, and someone mentioned having a big thermometer, marking off one red line at a time. But from God’s perspective, how would God gauge our Faith? Where would God put the line on our faith-o-meter?

In our Genesis reading we see the call of God on Abram, long before he became Abraham. God promised blessings, so that Abram could be a blessing. Blessed to be a blessing. It is no different for us. God does not plan to put us on a shelf, like some trinket or knick-knack. We are not a bauble in God’s glass menagerie. We are God’s investment. He put time, effort, and energy into us so that we could go out and be at work in the world to expand God’s Kingdom Realm, grow into the full stature of Christ, and engage this hurting world with God’s Grace.

As Paul quotes in our reading from Romans today, “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.”

God loved that with the simple faith of a child, an elderly man would pick up and give up the life and world he knew to go into the unknown, to believe that even so advanced in years he would bear a son, and that his legacy would not be just one child but a blessings to the entire world.

About 4,000 years ago Abraham took these steps of faith. About 3,000 years ago King David reigned. About 2,000 years ago Jesus came fulfilling the prophecies from all the preceding years. And despite this lineage and legacy, we still have trouble believing at times. Even reading history is an act of faith. We were not there. Scripture is doubly faith-filled as it is both historical and spiritual. Today we are given the chance to believe and obey, for the story is not over.

Friends, I walk around this campus and see how exceedingly blessed we are, but as nice as we have things it is not for us to do nothing with. God invested in us. We were blessed to be a blessing. What happens in the clinic is a blessing. What happens in our classrooms is a blessing. What happens on the playground or in the new pavilion is to make this world a bit more bearable, a bit more blessed.

When we look with eyes of faith, we see things a bit differently. Nicodemus, a longtime teacher of the faith in Jesus’ day came at night with some of those nagging questions that seem to keep us up at night. Or maybe he was afraid to admit that he had to seek advice because he knew that despite his years of supposed authority his words were as empty as his soul.

But God gave him a gift to see that something he was real, something eternally true. So he came to Jesus to see if what he wanted to believe was trustworthy.

Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; 

for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”

Jesus told him that God blessed him to see that truth, and that this was “born from above.”

Nicodemus gets caught up in a lingering literalism about being born “again.” He began to see things differently, but he could not let go of his false expectations. 

For folks looking for the long-awaited Messiah, they were expecting a great ruler, like King David from 1,000 years before Jesus. But Jesus, and God, had a bigger, better, bolder plan. They did not want to deal with the symptoms of sin, political power and its misuse (at this point in the history we are talking about the Romans), but the root of the problem, Sin itself.

Jesus spoke very clearly about Spirit and Wind, moving and shaking invisibly yet still powerfully, and poor, stuck Nicodemus did not follow. With patience and Grace, Jesus continues,

“If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

For those of you who do not remember the story, after leaving Egypt, the children of Israel encountered a stretch of desert filled with poisonous snakes. Moses was instructed to make a brass serpent to hold up, and any bitten by a snake could look at this symbol of death and be delivered from death. It is no accident that when Jesus was lifted up, he was raised on a symbol of power and authority, and most certainly, death. The Cross has since become something we think of as beautiful, and we even have jewelry adorning our bodies of this thing most lethal.

And then Jesus makes a statement which has lost some of its power because of its ubiquity. It is not just about a sign in an endzone at a football game. It is about life, the universe, and everything. John 3:16:

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

We miss much if we miss the snake analogy. We are already under certain death, as if we were bitten by a poisonous snake. So if we look at this reverse symbol with faith we might be saved. Belief, that thing that is reckoned to us as righteousness, enables what was once deadly to deliver, what was poisonous to pass over.

And if stopped there, it would sound exclusive. What about those who have not heard about this “out clause?” Or were raised in another faith?

But Jesus continues, and I find more hope and love in John 3:17 than John 3:16:

“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

God is not looking for judgment and condemnation. He is looking for righteousness and redemption. Remember how we started today? In God’s economy, he is not creating trinkets, he is investing in things that give a return.

He is investing in you. He is investing in me. We are blessed to be a blessing. We have been saved to be salvific. Jesus saves, but he also invites us in on the action. He wants us to be a part.

When we approach things that we do as a church, maybe that is the phrase that is our litmus test.

Why do we do anything that we do? That the world might be saved through him. If it does not stand that test, is it something that we should be about?

If we take this approach, God can be glorified, and we can be that blessing we have been blessed to be. May God bless us for the coming year. And may we be a blessing! Amen