Sunday, December 28, 2014

Fullness: a sermon

Year B Christmas 1
“Fullness” Dec 28, 2014
St. Thomas Church, Richmond, VA

(Scriptures used: Galatians 4:4-7, John 1:1-18)

In the Name of the God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Merry Christmas!  This is the fourth day of Christmas, and I do not know about you but I am stuffed.  Feasting leaves one in want of a salad.  Maybe a piece of fruit.  I feel full.

Some of you may remember that this time last year my family and I were in Germany, visiting my exchange family from high school.  They had always wanted to meet my girls, and they had always wanted us to come for Christmas.  Last year, we knew, would be the last Christmas I would probably have off ever again.  One of the costs of being a priest.  One of the phrases that I taught my girls before we went was, “Ich bin satt.”  When I first went to Germany, my teacher ground this phrase into our head.  “Do not say, ‘Ich bin voll.’  Say, ‘Ich bin satt.’”  While “Ich bin voll,” may translate word-wise as I am full, culturally speaking, “Ich bin voll,” means I am pregnant.  This is a very different rendering.  “Ich bin satt” means I am satisfied.  In other words, I cannot eat any more.  My exchange family was always pushing me to eat more, try this third dessert, here is another wurst.  Being 15 when I first went, and my daughters being 6 and 8, learning to say when is an important skill set.

Being full is an important thing to recognize.  That word is used twice in today’s lectionary readings, but as fullness.  The condition of being full.  We hear that word in the Galatians reading and John’s Gospel reading.  Because we did not read the Galatians passage because we were doing lessons and carols, let me include a few verses.

Galatians 4:4 But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, 5 in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children.

Paul here speaks to the fullness of time.  When the time was ripe.  When the time was complete.  When everything had been fulfilled.  I must be honest here, when Stephanie and I were first pondering the Episcopal church, I heard this phrase used in the liturgy.  It was used in Prayer B of the Eucharist, and it struck me, “Hey, these people know their Scriptures.”  This once used phrase in Galatians has always been one of my favorites.  The richness of the phrase always pleased me for some reason.  It’s like time was pregnant, and ready to be bursting forth.  Like that German phrase, “Ich bin voll.”  Prayer B looks to the fullness of time when Christ will come again.  Prayer C and Prayer D both use the phrase as it is used in Galatians.

Why did Christ come when he did, in the way that he did?  In the fullness of time, Christ came.  Everything was ready.  Everything was complete.

On Christmas day we made a feast.  I cooked a turkey.  Stephanie made pies and vegetables.  It took hours of work and preparation.  It took coordination for the items to all come out fully ready at close to the same time so we could sit down and eat.  In the items fullness, we found our fullness.  In the fullness of time Christ came.

In the John reading, fullness is used differently.  “16 From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.”  This prologue to John shows that his Gospel will be different.  Mark, the earliest written, starts with Jesus’ baptism.  Luke gives the backstory to John the Baptizer and the relationship to Jesus.  Matthew gives us a genealogy, showing where Jesus fits into the Jewish history and heritage.  But John is different.  He begins with the pre-incarnate cosmic Christ, the agent of creation and redemption since before time, at one with the Father, begotten, not made.  And from this place, we hear this message.  16 From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.  From Jesus’ abundance, from his overflowing cup, we have received that Grace upon Grace.  Grace greater than we can imagine.  Grace beyond our comprehension.  Amazing, abundant Grace.

This first Sunday of Christmas, as we sit in the glow of family and the hearth, may we celebrate our fullness.  We have feasted in celebration of the newborn king.  May we remember the time past in its fullness that allowed Christ to come, and the time to come in its fullness when Christ will come again.  And may will be filled to the brim with his Grace upon Grace.  Come one, come all, revel in the Fullness.  Amen.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

The Song of the Mockingbird and Other Things that Haunt this Teacher/Priest's Soul

Every morning I choose to do something for the common good.  I am an English teacher by choice, instead of vocation.  I was supposed to finish last year after 10 years of teaching, but I stayed on for a bit longer with a toe in the door.  Instead of fully leaving Anna Julia Cooper Episcopal School after four years there, at the end of last year I chose in coordination with the Head of School to stay on and teach one class and do chapels on Wednesdays.  So every morning from 8:20 till 10 a.m. I work on writing and reading with a gathering of students and supposedly guide them through 8th Grade Honors English.

I love working on writing with the students, but my real passion is for stories.  A good book can change a life, and a good life can change the world.  I weave magic every morning, sharing words of passion and heartbreak, violence and justice, love and forgiveness.

The last few weeks have been hard for me as I have wrestled with my students, all of them African-American and me a white Anglo male.  The privilege and class disparities are never far from my mind.  I have choices in my life, both for myself and my children.  One of the reasons I feel so passionately about my school and the work we are doing is that we are trying to create choices for these students.  The cycle of the same-ol', same-ol' does not have to be.  Our recent wrestling has been to finish one of my favorite books before people start heading out for Christmas break.  We are going to make it, but we are cutting it close.  We only have a a few score pages left and we will have completed To Kill a Mockingbird, and every time I read it I feel like it reads me.  It is one of the few books I know that gets better with every devouring.  It is filled with truth, both for the time it represents and for us as well.

[Warning: Spoilers Ahead.  If you have not read To Kill A Mockingbird, for God's sake stop reading this and go pick it up right now.]  This morning we read of Tom Robinson's death in our time together, and how Scout had to keep on a happy face like a "lady," while the women's Missionary Circle was gathered in her home.   Later, Mr. B.B. Underwood, editor of the The Maycomb Tribune, wrote an editorial about the event of Tom's death at the prison while he was trying to climb the fence. 

Mr. Underwood did not talk about miscarriages of justice, he was writing so children could understand.  Mr. Underwood simply figured it was a sin to kill cripples, be they standing, sitting, or escaping.  He likened Tom's death to the senseless slaughter of songbirds by hunters and children, and Maycomb thought he was trying to write an editorial poetical enough to be reprinted...(p. 323)
This is an echo, of course of earlier in the book, when Scout and Jem received air rifles from their uncle.
Atticus said to Jem one day, "I'd rather you shot at tin cans in the back yard, but I know you'll go after birds.  Shoot all the bluejays you want, if you can hit 'em, but remember, it's a sin to kill a mockingbird."  That was the only time I ever heard Atticus say it was a sin to do something, and I asked Ms. Maudie about it.  "You're father's right," she said, "Mockingbirds don't do one thing but make music for us to enjoy.  They don't eat up people's gardens or put nests in corncribs, they don't do one thing but sing their hearts out for us.  That's why it's a sin to kill a mockingbird."
As I pondered that today in my class full of children, I could not help but think about the headlines of the recent weeks.  Ferguson and New York, neither one in the supposed "racist South," have erupted, and we are still in the midst of riots and some looting around the country.  Berkeley, California getting the most headlines lately.  I ponder this story set in 1935, and I get queasy thinking that it is 2014.  Have we gone so little ways down this road in so long a time?  I think of the mockingbird, and its song.  I hear the cries from the protests, and I have to ask myself if they are not one and the same.

Perhaps the cry of the mockingbird, and the shocking push back of race, class and privilege, is no longer pleasing to us, but rather a song we need to hear.  "Black lives matter.  Black lives matter.  Black lives matter."

As we love each other through this time and these events, and as people of privilege let go of the fear and perhaps listen to those crying out, I believe that things can and will be better.  That is my prayer, as well as my hope.  We all can and must do what we can to take a collective sigh, a moment of grace, and make the future a better and brighter place.

Riding from school to church today, Sting's haunting lyric from the song Fragile has stayed with me, circling my brain like another cry of the mockingbird.

     Perhaps this final act was meant, 

     To clinch a lifetime's argument
     That nothing comes from violence and nothing ever could

     For all those born beneath an angry star
     Lest we forget how fragile we are

During this season of hope, and in the true spirit of Advent (The Arrival), may we all draw closer to one another and what we hold dear, lest we forget how fragile we are.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

"Living in the Tension [Preparing a Life]": a sermon

“Living in the Tension [Preparing a Life]”
Advent 2, Year B Dec 7, 2014
St. Thomas’ Church, Richmond, VA

In the Name of God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Today’s Gospel lesson from Mark is its opening verses.

1:1 The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

As if we were uncertain, Mark makes it quite clear.   He is setting out to tell us a tale.  It has a place to go, and he will make certain that we get there.  But like all good story tellers, he knows that the events he is sharing had their precedents established long before

2 As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, "See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way;  3 the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: 'Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,'"

The prophet’s cry comes the Isaiah text which begins: “Comfort, O comfort my people says your God.” (Is. 40:1)

The time has come for the Lord’s appearing.  The waiting is over, the day has arrived.  There are many moments in my life with that hurry up and wait moment.  Living in that tension is always uneasy.  It gives us moments to fret.  It gives us moments to worry.  Is everything done?  Did we accomplish all that we had to do?

When I was young, we would always go and visit my great-grandmother.  Thanksgiving, Christmas, and a week or more every summer, we would traipse down to Burlington, North Carolina and visit the family matriarch.  She had raised my mother so she was more of a grandmother to me, and some of my favorite memories are of her.  She was a caring and compassionate soul.  When I would get a cut or a scratch outside, I would come in and seek attention more than a band-aid.  She had a phrase, “Don’t you worry.  It will be better before you get married.”

That phrase stuck in my mind when I cut myself shaving on my wedding day.  I was about to say it out loud when it struck me that it would not.  It would not be better on my wedding day.  The waiting was over.  The future, what always had seemed so far away, was now.

This is the cry of John, stretching back to Isaiah’s prophecy.  What was to be future tense is John’s present.

4 John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.  5 And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
The people’s waiting was soon to be over.  The future long awaited was here.

6 Now John was clothed with camel's hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey.  7 He proclaimed, "The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals.  8 I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit." 

John’s unique clothing and food choices were not him being weird or strange.  He was fulfilling the vows of a Nazarite, a person fully committed to God.  So much so, they had a special distinction in the culture of ancient Israel.  He was called to a life as simple as could be.  No spun cloth, just a camel fur poncho with a leather strap to keep it on.  He would scavenge for food.  Locusts, wild honey, and other kosher things he could scrape up in a wild nomadic existence.  In his simplicity, people heard him pointing to something far more complex.  “I have baptized you in water,” he said, “but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”  If we really want to get technical, the word baptize is a transliteration from the Greek, baptizo, to immerse.  He is saying here, “I dunked you in water, but he will immerse you in the Holy Spirit.”  It has a different ring when we take out the word we have become so comfortable with as a one-time ceremony.  When we can do it with babies we may forget its power.

John so wanted that day to arrive, and I trust we do as well.

Jesus came that first Christmas, which Mark’s gospel did not include.  And we know the rest of the story.  We have now been waiting longer for Jesus to come again than the people between Isaiah and Jesus’ first arrival.  For almost two thousand years, we have awaited his imminent return.

In fact, as you read trough the New Testament, again and again, you will see these little moments of frustration of the longing to see Jesus again, RIGHT NOW.  They want the Lord to return.  There are days and times when I feel the same.  I want the Lord of Righteousness and the Prince of Peace to come and clean up this mess.  But Jesus’ return is not about being a Giant Hoover from Heaven, vacuuming away the awful.

In our waiting, the same waiting from the first century of the Church I remind you, we also need the patience that was also expressed in St. Peter’s passage today.

I Peter 3:9 The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance.  10 But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and everything that is done on it will be disclosed.  11 Since all these things are to be dissolved in this way, what sort of persons ought you to be in leading lives of holiness and godliness, 12 waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set ablaze and dissolved, and the elements will melt with fire?  13 But, in accordance with his promise, we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home.  14 Therefore, beloved, while you are waiting for these things, strive to be found by him at peace, without spot or blemish; 15a and regard the patience of our Lord as salvation. 

“Regard the patience of the Lord as salvation.”  Peter is telling us that this is to our benefit, for the Lord to not come again.  He even asks the question.  “What sort of persons ought you to be in leading lives of holiness and godliness?”    What sort of people should we be?

Most of us know the people we should be.  But there is the rub; we know, but do we want to put in the time and effort for us to be the sort of persons we should be.

As we “Prepare the ways of the Lord, and make his paths straight,” we are not talking about a quick clean-up, a tidying because the relatives are coming over.  We are also not talking about setting up Potemkin villages, to trick the visiting monarch, some Disney facade that gives a feel and not a reality.  What we are speaking of is wholesale change.

In our Preparation for the Lord, we are flattening mountains and leveling valleys.  Or so encourages Isaiah and John.  As John waited for Christ to come, and we are waiting for Christ to come again, are we immersed in the Holy Spirit, steeped with God in our lives?

When we look at who we should be in our Preparation, we need a metaphor shift in our brains.  We are not preparing for an event, but for a new way of being.  When the Lord comes, everything is changed.  We are changed.  That is why a tidying will not do.

We are not looking at waiters setting up for an evening meal.  Those are not the preparations we are calling for.  Rather, think on people who have to prepare for any and every eventuality.  

Think on ER doctors who never know what is going to walk through their doors.

Think Firemen and Soldiers.  They need to train and practice.  They do drills and training exercises.  They are always in a state of readiness, or they cannot be who they are supposed to be.  Firemen and Soldiers do not get to use phrases like, “When I get around to it.”  

Trumpet players and Singers, they get never know what they will get handed.  They practice and take care of their instruments.  I remember when I played tuba in college.  My professor talked about his daily routine.  He played scales for an hour a day.  An hour a day.  He was someone who could do these scales in his sleep.  After so many years, he could probably play these scales in a coma.  I found it amazing that something I took for granted, was something that he took as assumed.   I was the player I was, because a couple of times a week I would warm up with scales for a few minutes.  He was the player that he was because he started his day with an hour of scales before he began to practice.  He was the master, and I was the student.  He still is the Master.  

As the old story goes, a world famous pianist was leaving the stage at Carnegie Hall.  A fan stops him saying, “Maestro!  I would give my life to play like you!”  The maestro, actually taken aback for a moment, says, “Oh, but I did.”  You and I are both giving our life to something.  What are we giving our life to do?  What are we giving our life to be?

In our Preparation this Advent, think on who you are.  Who do you want to be?  How do you practice your faith?  How do you live out what you believe?

There are many places where we could start.  But, we will stay with our theme for the day.  If Jesus were showing up here today, how would you be?  What would you do?  Where would you go?  How would you act?  What would you say to your children?  How would you spend your day?

If Jesus were coming back in, say, 18 days, on December 25, what would you do differently between now and then?

If he were coming back in 100 years, what would St. Thomas’ do the prepare the way of the Lord?  

How about this, why don’t we live today like he is coming back tomorrow, and decide to make Richmond the way we would want him to find it in 100 years.  I think between those two ideas our preparations would be grand.  Amen.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Recovering Baptist, a misnomer

There are certain times and places when we begin to see things in new ways.  A slant, a twist, a difference in our perspective that gives us an awakening and we may wonder how we never saw it that way before.  We have a word for it: Epiphany.

Yesterday I had one of those.  It was in the middle of a sermon from our rector at St. Thomas’ Episcopal.  I had heard most of it before that morning, but in her different way of preaching it at our evening Bluegrass Mass I heard something in a new way.

As she walked through her thoughts on the parable of the Talents, where three different slaves were given three huge sums and told to do something with it, I let my mind apply her words to me.  Two slaves doubled their master’s money.  One buried it in the dirt.  She went on to say that she wished Jesus had someone attempt and fail, and give the kingdom vision of doing one’s best and coming up with bupkiss.  She said that we were given that vision.  The one’s that try and fail are crucified, and we know that story.  Our example of that is Jesus himself.  In Jesus, it is literal.  In my life, metaphorical.  I remember feeling crucified.  I remember failing.  Those feelings led to my life today.

While I was still a Baptist pastor, I did not leave well.  I wish I had done things differently, and I wish that the powers that were had done things differently.  Looking back, it was not my Baptist faith that I was leaving behind, but rather the last vestiges of the fundamentalism I had been steeped in from my earliest years.  I had already let go much of it, as had most of those I worked with, but some underlying assumptions (and presumptions) when people use the same words and mean entirely different things had caused some severe responses.  I left feeling crucified.  I left bitter.

I have a few stock jokes, which I often repeat depending on the audience, apologies to my poor wife. One of those I use in trying to explain my transition to the priesthood in the Episcopal Church is that I am a Recovering Baptist, ha ha ha, like I am in Fundamentalists Anonymous.  I use it as a joke, but it struck me yesterday, that I have been identifying with my crucifixion.  While the scars remain, we are not a people of the Crucifixion.  We are a people of the Resurrection.  I need to stop seeing myself in recovery.  I need to see myself  in my vibrant and real self, resurrected to new life, new ministry, new beginnings.  I need to let go the burial clothes which are no longer appropriate.  I need to put on the new, and stop dragging around that which has come before.  I caught all this in a glimpse, mid-sermon.  I heard Good News in that message.  I am no longer a recovering Baptist.

So if you ask me, I pray I say, I am a “Resurrected Episcopalian.”  Emphasis on Resurrected, not on Episcopalian.  While I wholeheartedly embrace what I have come from and where I am going, I have had such a huge sense of my calling and have received such affirmation about it that I could not be more excited and forward thinking.  My epiphany mid-sermon was seeing how I see myself, and letting go of what has come before.  St. Paul talked about that sin that clings so closely.  For me, continuing to hold on would be a sin.

A Prayer:
Lord Jesus, the Resurrected, help me to let go of what has gone before, and help me see myself and hear your call to that new life, that new land, where I can abide in the resurrection which has come in you.  Thank you.  Amen.

Monday, November 10, 2014

"Christ Will Come Again": a sermon

“Christ Will Come Again”
Year A, Proper 27 
St. Thomas’ Church, Richmond, VA 

I have heard all kinds of dire warnings, “Look busy, Jesus is coming.” And,
“God is coming, and boy is she…” Let’s just say, “irked.”

But today’s parable is not about busy-ness. It is not about looking, acting or
being busy. It is about being ready.

On Friday, we had the final day of our quarter at school. As a teacher, there
are always a few moments when the pace is like an accountant’s April 15th.
This day that has always been out there has now arrived. Also, as a teacher,
I am constantly amazed at the students who are caught unaware.

Remember, I teach the 8th grade Honors English class. This is the cream of
the crop at my school. But no matter how many warnings I give, no matter
how many countdowns I put on the board, there is always a student who
says they did not know. They need more time. As a teacher, it is always
heart-breaking to say that there is no more time. Time is up. The quarter is
over. What I have at the end of this period is the grade you will get. My
students need to be ready for the day of accounting is at hand. But
remaining ready is hard when we think that there is more time to get our
stuff in order.

Already by the time of Matthew writing his Gospel, his community was
wrestling with what has been called the parousia. Christ has died. Christ is
risen. Say it with me: Christ will come again. It’s that last statement we
are looking at today. Christ will come again. The parousia is the return of
Christ. While Jesus looked at being ready and prepared for the Kingdom
that is, Matthew tells the tale in such a way that his audience then and now
have to make a connection to this present, yet longed for reality. They were
waiting for Christ’s eminent return, so they were becoming disgruntled for
the prolonged delay.

We still wait almost 2,000 years later.

That time of in-between is always so hard. We have been given tastes and
our hopes have been stirred. This longing is mixed. We know what we
want, we just want it now.

1Now, do pay attention to the story told. Jesus did not start with “The
Kingdom of Heaven is like this…”

Matthew tells the story like this. "Then the kingdom of heaven will be like
this.” It is future-oriented already. It looks to the time to come.

So the story is of 10 bridesmaids, awaiting the groom who has been
delayed. Notice here that all 10 slept. I repeat, this parable is not about
busy-ness. It is not about squeezing more in.

At midnight the call goes out: “Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to
meet him.” Now 5 had been named foolish and 5 wise.

The 5 wise trimmed their oil lamps. Remember these our simple lamps,
like the one Aladdin rubbed in the stories. This gravy boat shaped lamp
held an string dipped in oil. The string would absorb the oil and as it
burned, the string would dry out, and begin to burn and smoke. So,
someone smart would trim their string so the lamp could be used and be
efficient. The other thing needed to keep the string from drying out was
having enough oil for it to burn long and steady. This is where the 5 foolish
messed up.

The foolish wanted to borrow some, but everyone had enough for
themselves. They had been prepared for the delay of the Groom. That
Just-In-Case extra we sometimes pack. I was always told have more
underwear and socks than you think you need when you pack. When I was
a Boy Scout, we were always encouraged to Be Prepared.

The 5 ready were received by the Groom and take to the party. The 5
foolish went to get more oil. When they got to the party, they were not
recognized by the Groom and were left in the dark.

We need to be ready.

Today is a special day. It is the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin
Wall. I had the unique opportunity of living in Germany when Berlin
opened up. I was in Hamburg, not even 200 miles away. For decades East
Germans had wanted freedom. They were tired of their government
holding them down, and the Soviets who held their government in check.
2My remembrances of seeing people pour into Hamburg are blurred.
Having been a child of the Cold War and growing up in Hampton Roads, I
had always been warned that in first strike, we would be wiped out. We
would have nothing to worry about because we would not be here. The
news that there was a hope for an alternative future was a mental
earthquake. Seeing the small, cheap cars called Trabis puttering around
Hamburg was a sight to behold. Going to the Fish Market, people were
buying any and everything they could get their hands on to take home and

A few days after that November 9th in 1989, I was able to get to Berlin, and
experience it for myself. I was able to see the excitement of those that had
been waiting so long for more in their life. Many things can be pointed to
as the triggers of that night 25 years ago, but today I just want to mention

One of the things that led the East Germans to long for freedom came from
a very unexpected places. Dallas. Not Dallas the place, but rather Dallas
the show. Yes, our very own J.R. Ewing was highly popular in Germany,
both East and West. When the East Germans would look at the show that
was leaking across the border, they saw wealth beyond belief. One of the
signs I saw painted on the Berlin Wall summed up their desires well. “We
Came. We Saw. We did a little shopping.” Dallas painted a vision of a
different approach to life, and while not a goal, the excesses of Dallas the
TV show gave them a hope of having more. This longing for something led
to those events 25 years ago.

Another contributing factor, far less subtle and far more spiritual, was the
role of the Nikolaikirche in Leipzig. The Nicholas Church has long been a
thorn in the government’s side. The pastor, Christian Führer, had been
holding prayer meetings since the summer. His church was actively
praying for peace, and this week, 25 years ago, they had been praying for a
week for change to come, and peace to reign. Their prayer meeting spilled
out, becoming a 70,000 person protest, peaceful, prayerful, but a protest
nonetheless. If you are not familiar with this powerful movement of the
Church for peace I encourage you to google it. This longing, as great as
Dallas, influenced people as well.

3This waiting and hoping is a lot like our parousia desires. Christ has died.
Christ is risen. And we hope and pray, Christ will come again. We want our
hopes fulfilled. We want our desires answered.

So, how can we be more like the wise and less like the foolish?
We need to look to our spiritual lives now.

One of the verses in my favorite hymn goes like this:

Come, ye weary, heavy-laden,
Lost and ruined by the fall;
If you tarry till you’re better,
 You will never come at all.

We need to start wherever we are, and we need to start now. Change begins
today if it is going to happen. If we wait, we really do not want change.
From Harry of When Harry Met Sally… “When you know who you want to
be with for the rest of your life, you want the rest of your life to start right
now.” We need to focus and work on our spiritual well being while we can.
Now is the time. This is the day. If we tarry till we’re better, We will never
come at all.

This parable is about being ready. It is also about, matching our actions to
our stated beliefs.

As I said in our blurb on the bulletin, our priorities are obvious to most,
even though sometimes we are blind to them. We often are the last to see.

I encourage all of us this time of year to sit down. Go through your
calendar, your checkbook and credit card statements this time of year.
What took first place? Where was your focus and greatest gift of time,
talent and resources? Look hard mixed with forgiveness, and decide who or
what is going to be first in your life next year. This is the precursor work for
our pledges, our resolutions, and more importantly our spirituality.

By doing an assessing of our lives, what we treasure and what we spend our
time doing, we can check the oil in our spiritual lamps and be ready.
425:13 Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.
The term here, translated as the admonition, “Keep awake” is more often
translated as watch. Gregorio, the Greek term, is more like our phrase,
“Keep an eye out,” or “Stay vigilant.”

We need to keep on keeping on.

None of us are promised another day. Take the time to be intentional.
Take the time to be prepared. Tell the people you love that you love them.
That thing you were going to do when you get around to it, yes, look at that.
Keep watch, for no one knows the day or the hour. Amen.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

The "Greatest" Issue: a sermon

Year A Proper 25, October 26, 2014
“The Greatest Issue”
St. Thomas Church, Richmond, VA

Mel Brooks, dispersing his wisdom through laughter, sums up most of the world’s point of view with a single line.  “It’s good to be the King.”  We wrestle with this notion, no matter our perspective.  There are implications to his statement, and there are even more implied.  If you are King, then things are supposedly the best, despite the paranoia about losing one’s position and the sycophants who wrestle for attention.  But the implications are what it means to be anything other, or one far from the seat the power.  The pull to be the best, or to side with the best, is so steeped in our approaches and understanding that it is a hard thing to shake.  We are aiming to position ourselves, or wheedle our way to the center, whether we are conscious of it or not.

As the children are becoming more and more social in middle school where I teach, the jockeying and ranking is ceaseless.  Even if it is to not be the worst.  The meanest and nastiest of comments come from the kid that thinks he can stay out of the bottom rank in whatever position they are in if he can just put someone else in the position below him.  She turns on anyone who can be seen as less than her if she thinks it can work.

The games do not stop when we leave middle school.  If only.

We keep up with the Joneses.  Or we play the “More Humble Than Thou” game.  Looking to see who is best, or where we rank.  And it is hard and almost impossible to opt out.  They even tried to drag Jesus into the ceaseless ranking game in today’s passage.

The Pharisees, assuming the priority and importance of their religious and social stances were out to put the young rabbi to the test.  This itinerant preacher could not be all that, just by the sheer nature of who was following him.  Today’s reading is the third of the gotcha scenarios tossed at Jesus from competing parties, the Sadducees and the Pharisees.  The Sadducees had just been put in their place, when a young Pharisee lawyer asked a common question that had been wrestled with in Jewish circles for years.  

“Rabbi,” the lawyer asks, “of the 613 commandments in the Scriptures,” remember this is just the Torah, the Five Books of Moses we are looking at here, “Rabbi, of these 613 commandments, in your opinion is the greatest?   In your own words, please.”

Jesus said to him, "'You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’  This is the greatest and first commandment.  And a second is like it: 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’  On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets."  

Jesus said nothing new here.  Rabbis and commenters had been saying and teaching this approach across the years.  And while these learned men gathered to come back with a response, Jesus poses a question of his own.

22:42 "What do you think of the Messiah? Whose son is he?" They said to him, "The son of David.”

Now, as a portion of the gathered followers of Jesus, we have a hard time not hearing this question as Jesus being self-referential.

Now the Pharisees probably saw it as a theoretical, or a rhetorical tit-for-tat.  We asked him some questions to watch him dance in front of the crowd he had gathered there in the Temple.  He had told some accusatory parables that we have preserved in chapter 21 of Matthew.

Jesus quotes Psalm 110. He directs the Pharisees attention to a Psalm attributed to David, speaking to how the Messiah will conquer his enemies.  The Messiah is at the right hand of the Lord.  The Lord will deliver his enemies under his feet.  Jesus continues here:

22:43 He said to them, "How is it then that David by the Spirit calls him Lord, saying,
22:44 'The Lord said to my Lord, "Sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet"'?
22:45 If David thus calls him Lord, how can he be his son?”

In Jewish society, the son could not be seen as greater than the father, and a son could not be Lord to his elder.  Jesus is playing a verbal and cultural challenge with the Pharisees.  The Messiah is the “son” of David, a descendent.  But from the very words of David, he is seen to acknowledge the supremacy of the Messiah, one foretold to be his descendant and potential heir to his greatness.  Jesus’ query won the day, as we see in the closing of today’s reading:

46 No one was able to give him an answer, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions.

SO, Jesus wins the semantic battle.  He is the greatest.  We see him as the Messiah, the fulfillment of the promises and hopes, and would seem to be the greatest in our books, too.

But here is the problem.  The sticking point, that we know the rest of the story.  Jesus, while the greatest, did not allow himself to be put in that role.  He refused to play the game.  

There is a hymn of the early church that Paul quotes in the second chapter of Philippians.  Jesus was asked what was the greatest commandment, and he, by his choices, fulfills and embodies these to the fullest extent possible.

Philippians 2:5-8

5Let the same mind be in you that was* in Christ Jesus,
6 who, though he was in the form of God,
  did not regard equality with God
  as something to be exploited,
7 but emptied himself,
  taking the form of a slave,
  being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
8   he humbled himself
  and became obedient to the point of death—
  even death on a cross.

Jesus loved God with all he had, his heart, his soul, his mind.  And he loved us, his fellow pilgrims on this earthly journey as much, if not more, than himself.

If we stop at the point of Jesus being a good and moral teacher, he did not say anything new that had not been said before.  Others had quoted these two commandments as the greatest.

If we look to the miracles Jesus did, Deuteronomy, in fact the very passage we read cites Moses as the greatest miracle worker that has ever been seen.

So what makes Jesus so special?  What makes him worthy to be seen as the Messiah?

By what he did, being obedient to death, even death on a cross, and rising in new life is what makes him the greatest.

Jesus in his choices over and over again, said that his way would not be the way of the world, where it is seen as good to be the King.  When he was lifted up, after miracles and at the Transfiguration, he demanded silence be kept until after…

And, at the Triumphal entry, he did not come riding in on a stallion, challenging authority, but on a humble donkey.  A statement of what type of authority he would be in and of itself.

The issue of greatness, of raising oneself up, is a challenge and a hardship that is as great a temptation as ever, if not more so.  We live in an age of celebrities are celebrities because they have been named such whether they have done a single thing of value or not.

In the Thessalonian passage, Paul again, points to how he came into the city, proclaiming the Gospel without demands and facing adversities.

2:5 As you know and as God is our witness, we never came with words of flattery or with a pretext for greed;  6 nor did we seek praise from mortals, whether from you or from others, 7 though we might have made demands as apostles of Christ. But we were gentle among you, like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children.  8 So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you have become very dear to us.

Like Christ came to the world, Paul came to the city of Thessaloniki, humbly, and over the course of time, he came to love and care for those to whom he was sent.

The greatness expounded upon today, finds its nature not in domination or supremacy, but in deep and abiding love.  Paul’s love for Thessaloniki.  Christ’s love for us all.  Our love for those given to our care and nurture.  So how do we do this?

Looking back at Jesus’ words, his commandments we are to love God with all of us, without hindrances or compartmentalizations.  And how do we do that?  Look at the second command, to love our neighbors.  Now we can play the play the semantic game of who is my neighbor, and Jesus’ response to that was the parable of the Good Samaritan, where we were urged, to “Go, and do likewise.”  But rather, instead of looking at who is not our neighbor, let us just look at who is.  Let us start there.  There are many who need our love, our ministry, our attention.

The world may say that it is good to be the King, but we are called to show what we find to be the greatest by what we do.  And they will know that we are Christians by our love, yes, they’ll know that we are Christians by our love.  Amen.

Monday, October 13, 2014

The Cost of a Soul: a sermon

“The Cost of a Soul”
St. Thomas’ Richmond
Year A, Proper 23 Oct. 12, 2014

I took some days off recently, and had the pleasure of picking up my favorite story, Les Misérables by Victor Hugo.  It is a huge book, and I will be at it for a while.  It seemed appropriate and the timing was right for me to pick it up again.  If you have ever read the book, it starts with a 60 page explanation of a very minor character compared to the rest of the book, Monseigneur Charles-Francois-Bienvenu, Bishop of Digne.  Minor though he may be, he stepped in and granted Grace when it was needed, and in doing so set off the chain of events that became the rest of the story.

The story’s main character, Jean Valjean was on his way home after being imprisoned for years for stealing a loaf of bread for his starving nieces and nephews.  As he had no place to stay, the humble Bishop Bienvenu invited him into his home, and seated him at his table, and served him with silver that the bishop had inherited from his aunt.  Bishop Bienvenu was known for living simply, and giving most of what he had to the poor.  This one inherited gift was his only thing of value in his home. 

Late in the night, in the wee hours, Jean Valjean who had learned in prison to take care only for himself steals the silver service and runs away.  Police see him running out of the city, and stop and search him finding the silver in his bag.  Not believing him, they drag him back the Bishop Bienvenu and confront him there, repeating Jean Valjean’s story that the silver was a “gift” from an old priest.  The bishop says that Jean Valjean was right.  They were a gift, but that there was an error, Jean Valjean had forgotten the most expensive part of the service, the large silver candlesticks on the mantle, and the Bishop hands them to Valjean.  The gendarmes, the police, are surprised and the Bishop thanks them and sends them on their way.

I now quote from the book, starting with the Bishop speaking:
‘Do not forget, do not ever forget, that you have promised me to use the money to make yourself an honest man.’
Valjean, who did not recall having made any promise, was silent.  The bishop had spoken the words slowly and deliberately.  He concluded with a solemn emphasis:
‘Jean Valjean, my brother, you no longer belong to what is evil but to what is good.  I have bought your soul to save it from black thoughts and the spirit of perdition, and I give it to God.’

In all of Western literature we wrestle with this idea, this idea that is beyond our comprehension, the idea of Grace.  Brennan Manning says, “There is nothing we can do than can make God love us any more, and there is nothing we can do that would make God love us any less.”  It is not fair.  It can often seem not right.  It is scandalous.  It is Grace.

If you look at the passages today, they all argue and wrestle with Grace. 

In the Exodus passage, Moses is on the mountain receiving the sacred laws that will be the foundation of the people God has saved and called to be God’s own.  Meanwhile, down below, the people forgot how they got out of Egypt and took the easy route.  They made a cow statue, the fertility god Baal.  And when Moses arrives, he wrestles with God arguing for Grace.  Moses reminds God of all that had been done to get them to this point, and then in one of the most radical verses in the Bible, Exodus 32:14 “And the LORD changed his mind…”   I know many who would need to rethink their theology with that verse.  But Grace rules the day.

Paul is instructing the Philippians, reminding them in how to keep the way of Jesus’ community of Grace:
4:8 Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.

4:9 Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.

We have a response to Grace.  We can call it Amazing, and it is.  We can be overcome by our unworthiness to the point of being frozen and feel powerless.  But in our redemption, we are called to be agents of Grace.  We are called to be Transformed.  We are called to be New Creations. 

In the Gospel parable, we love that King sent out his servants to beat the bushes and to have the banquet hall filled.  This is the epitome of Grace.  But the story does not stop there, and this is the part where we squirm.  Where is Jesus going with this?  At the banquet there are expectations.  This is the King’s home.  There are expectations in response to this gracious offer.  The King was surprised to see someone without their best on.  He asked the poorly dressed man where the his wedding robe was.  The man was speechless in response, and he was thrown out. 

Now Grace can only come from God, but the nature of that Grace comes in our response to it.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his most read work, The Cost of Discipleship, speaks of Cheap Grace, Grace which is cheapened by our response to it, and Costly Grace, Grace which is responded to by us seeing and living our lives appropriately to this costly gift which we did not deserve, but received nonetheless.

Bonhoeffer here:
“Cheap grace means grace sold on the market like cheapjacks' wares. The sacraments, the forgiveness of sin, and the consolations of religion are thrown away at cut prices. Grace is represented as the Church's inexhaustible treasury, from which she showers blessings with generous hands, without asking questions or fixing limits. Grace without price; grace without cost! The essence of grace, we suppose, is that the account has been paid in advance; and, because it has been paid, everything can be had for nothing. Since the cost was infinite, the possibilities of using and spending it are infinite. What would grace be if it were not cheap?...

Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.

Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man will go and sell all that he has. It is the pearl of great price to buy which the merchant will sell all his goods. It is the kingly rule of Christ, for whose sake a man will pluck out the eye which causes him to stumble; it is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows him.

Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock.

Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son: "ye were bought at a price," and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon his Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered him up for us. Costly grace is the Incarnation of God.”
So then, what are we to do?  When we come to this table today, are we coming because it is what one does?  Or do we come seeking transformation and renewal?  God did not come in Jesus to make bad people good, boring people cool, the mean nice, or the lowly popular.  Jesus came to make the blind to see, the lame to walk, and the dead to rise again.  We are not talking about a nice Gospel, or a polite Gospel, but a powerful Gospel.  We speak of the Gospel of Grace.
Grace is the bishop claiming Jean Valjean’s soul, and giving it to God.  It is the loss of priceless silver, as it is the death of the Son of God.  And for those of us who choose to be enfolded by the Grace, it is the power to walk from the sin that clings so closely to become who we were born to be.  We do not become less of who we are in the Transformation but the whittling down of the layers on the outside, until we can in Christ be who we were meant to be.  Like a master sculptor, Christ pulls off the parts that were not intended so that the Beautiful can be transformed from the unshaped blocks of stone.
One of the most beautiful parts of this Gospel of Grace is that we are invited to be a part.  We are blessed to be blessings.  We don’t pay it back, we share it forward.  We give from the glorious gifts we have been given.  The Korean War Memorial reminds us that Freedom Is Not Free.  And in the same way, Grace is not Gratis.  It cost someone much for our gift.
Jesus said, “Many are called, but few are chosen.”  So many hold onto something, some sin, some worry, something they can control, instead of giving it all so that it may be transformed as well.  Come, let us let go of what we hold onto so closely and actually has hold of us.  Come, let us prepare for the banquet that is waiting.  The call is here.  The invitation is here.  What we be the nature of this Grace?  Is it cheap or costly? 

Lord, help us to always be mindful of the cost of a soul, and in so doing, save us from ourselves.  Amen.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

The Fairness Doctrine: A Sermon Year A Proper 20

Hi friends,
Normally I have been putting up my sermon's text, but we moved to recording our sermons this week, and did not think that my outline would make any sense to anyone other than me, so here is the audio.  Blessings!

The Fairness Doctrine: a sermon

Sunday, August 31, 2014

"The God Who Is" a sermon

“The God Who Is”
St. Thomas’ Episcopal, Richmond
Year A, Proper 17, Aug. 31, 2014

Last week I got the chance of a lifetime, and it was nothing I deserved, it was nothing other than a gracious and generous gift.  It was offered.  And without thinking, I accepted and I am so glad I did.

Before school starts on Tuesday, this last week was the only chance that I knew that we could take the girls out of town while it was still summer.  Stephanie, the kids and I ran down to Nags Head for a few days.  After grabbing dinner in Manteo on Monday night, I took the kids to see the marina in Wanchese just down the road.  While driving around, I saw a beautiful fishing boat jacked up on blocks.  The name emblazoned on the side was “Jesus Freak.”  I was on vacation, so I slammed the brakes, backed up the van, and made Stephanie take my picture.  Some of you may have seen her handiwork and my vacation-hubris on Facebook.  Just after the picture, what is not shown was the owner of the boatshop walking out and asking if he could help me.

I was a little embarrassed, but apologized for being in his driveway, but that I was a priest and needed to get my picture with the boat named Jesus Freak.  He laughed, and said the owner would have loved that and that his other boat is named Salvation.  Then after chit-chatting for a bit, he asked me if I would like to see a boat he had just finished that was down in the water.  Now remember, this is around 6 p.m. on a Monday night.

He said to follow him in his truck.  We went just a block away, and there in the water was a beautiful 62’ fishing yacht.  No expense had been spared.  Every detail was custom, and gorgeous.  There was not a wasted inch in the 62’.  The kind man asked my daughter how much she thought it cost, and she said, “$2,000.”  We all laughed, and I said she needed to add a few zeros.  Before all the detail work, it was $2 Million dollars, and after much, much more.

We were out riding around, not even thinking of getting on a boat, when we were surprised by grace and given a gift I will never forget.  Only time I will be able to get on a multi-million dollar yacht like that.  It came out of nowhere, and for an hour we were given a detailed, room-by-room tour and it was astounding.

Moses was about his business as a shepherd, when grace broke in on him.  He was doing his work, when he felt the need to turn aside and “look at this great sight.”  His plan did not include burning bushes and the angel of the Lord, but it happened and he was astounded.  The call of God came when it came, and it was not planned.  It probably wrecked Moses’ calendar.  It was not convenient.  Like the TSA at the airport, he had to take off his shoes.

This was when God broke through to Moses.  He had been in hiding for decades after he committed murder in bout of righteous indignation, and he ran for his life.  He settled far away from Egypt, and planned to live a simple life where no one would know him, and no one would ask him to go back to Egypt.  

But God had other plans.

On July 13, I talked about the general call of God, the call that goes out to any and all.  That call to be good, help others, and to love God with all you have.  Today, however, we are looking at the specific call of God, that person-to-person call, or deity-to-person call, where God steps in and messes up our calendars and calls us to the last place on earth we might expect to go.

The call of God can be all manner of things.  It can come from an off-hand compliment from a stranger that affirms a quietly held idea we have been keeping secret and safe inside our minds, but once vocalized we have to ask if it could be God talking through that person.  The call from God can come from deeply held desires, that we wrestle with for years.  The call of God can be just a part of who we are.

I shared this in the coffee and conversation interview with me during Lent, and I apologize for the repeat.  Growing up, all I ever talked about was being a minister.  Really.  Now there were age-appropriate delusions around what type of minister I would be.  At 4 I was going to Africa to be a missionary, mostly because I wanted to see lions.  At 7, I was going to be the first chaplain on the space station like in 2001: a space odyssey.  By high school, I had it more refined and reined in, but it was still there.  I was surprised at my high school reunions, that people actually stopped me and asked if I became a pastor.  When I said yes, they said I was the only person they knew that actually became what he always said he would become.  The call of God does not have to come from a burning bush.  And it certainly does not have to be about becoming a priest or deacon.  What it has to be about is that piece of the puzzle that you can fulfill in way that no one else can, to the glory of God.  You are uniquely qualified to do what it says in the Lord’s prayer.  “On earth, as it is in heaven.”  Your call is to make this place a bit more like heaven, to the glory of God.

Like Moses, though, we come up with many excuses why this must be some mistake.

3:11 But Moses said to God, "Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” 12 He said, "I will be with you; and this shall be the sign for you that it is I who sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain."

I love God’s proof here, “You will know that it was me who did this calling thing when it is all over and you are back here at this mountain with everybody.  Then you will know.”

This call of God is call of faith.  We have to take that step, like Indiana Jones over the abyss, and trust that there is solid ground to catch us.  Even though we have to take this step alone, we do not have to go it alone.  One of the wonderful and exciting things we do as a church is our discernment committees for those who hear God’s call to vocational ministry.  That is something that our Diocese does exceedingly well.  Coming from a place where that was far less established, and people who were really struggling often found out mid-seminary that the ministry was not the call of God, I have seen how not to do it and am very glad of the deliberate and intentional nature of the process here.  When we respond to the call of God, we step out on faith.  But how do we know it is God who is calling us?

3:13 But Moses said to God, "If I come to the Israelites and say to them, 'The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,' and they ask me, 'What is his name?' what shall I say to them?"  14 God said to Moses, "I AM WHO I AM." He said further, "Thus you shall say to the Israelites, 'I AM has sent me to you.'"

These verses of Scripture, are some of the most pivotal in the Bible, and the few minutes we have here I cannot do them justice.  But the name God gives for Godself is “I AM.”  The Hebrew here is ambiguous, and God is who God is, and all the permutations of the past and future tenses.  I am who I was, I am who I will be.  I was who I am, I was who I will be.  I will be who I was, I will be who I will be.  In other words, God is God, yesterday, today and forever.  And also what he is saying to Moses is that he is the God who is.  And that is the call we want to hear.  When we hear that call, from the God who is what have we to fear?

But that being said, it does not mean the road is easy.  Moses still had to go back to Egypt.  As Jesus put it in our Gospel reading, speaking to his disciples and to us today, "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 25 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”(Matthew 16:24-25)

We are called to follow down roads that are not the easy and broad streets, but the hard and narrow.  We know what the cross is, but I find it fascinating that people so often miss the possessive pronoun.  “Their cross.”  We are called to take our cross and respond to God’s call for us.  We might have to do something that scares us, like go back to Egypt or go to a neighborhood we were always to told to stay out of.  We might have to do with less, monetarily or in social standing.  We might have to move.  Susan and Rick, thank you for hearing and responding to God’s call.  Richmond is not the mountains of New Hampshire.  But God who was there, is here, too.

I was glad I stopped my car on Monday to see a boat.  A simple picture became something far greater.  I am glad I heard God’s call from my earliest years.  Moses is glad he stepped aside to see a marvelous sight.  Though it can be scary, the call of God is the greatest of gifts and our highest aspiration.  No matter the call we receive, the God WHO IS, the great I AM, will be with us all the way.  Amen.