Sunday, November 15, 2015

Year B Proper 28 "In Whose Name?": a sermon

“In Whose Name?”
Year B Proper 28 (33) Nov 15, 2015
St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church, Richmond, VA

From the Book of Common Prayer, A Prayer for Peace (BCP p. 815)

Eternal God, in whose perfect kingdom no sword is drawn
but the sword of righteousness, no strength known but the
strength of love: So mightily spread abroad your Spirit, that
all peoples may be gathered under the banner of the Prince of
Peace, as children of one Father; to whom be dominion and
glory, now and for ever. Amen.

I did not sleep most of Friday night. I could not. I tried. But in my sleeplessness I would check the news and see the death count rise. And I knew that it would only go up. Friday the 13th had always been a day of dread. Probably too many ghost stories as a kid. For most of my life, Jason in his hockey mask was the boogeyman. This Friday the 13th was far more scary.

I have been to Paris. I remember walking around this astounding city. Beauty everywhere. I had a memory come back to me Friday night from when I was leaving one of the monuments. We were leaving from the tour, and there, in the Arc de Triomphe there were bullet holes. Little nicks and dings that rebellions or an invasion had put in so magnificent a structure. In a city of such beauty I was reminded that violence had taken place even there. It seemed so strange and so foreign on that beautiful May day two dozen years ago. A city the age of Paris, the size of Paris, the scope of Paris, must have its scars, as all world cities do, but it seemed strange on that day that they were not repaired. They were not covered over. Violence may have seemed so far away on Friday evening as well.

Yesterday morning, I had the privilege to be the guest of Dr. Fred Rahal, along with the Youth Group and parents to go to the Virginia Holocaust Museum. On the heels of Friday night, it was even more poignant. In talking with someone about recent events, and all that we were presented with at the museum, it struck me how hate can justify anything. Hate allows us to seem righteous when we could not be more fully away from it. Hate enabled Friday. Hate enabled the Holocaust. Hate can justify anything.

Our readings today show the disciples enamored with the beauty and the grandeur of the Temple, Jerusalem’s central monument of their day. They were in awe, and Jesus responded differently than they expected. He dismissed the glories of the Temple. He responded:

"Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down."

The scene jumps, from the Temple, to across the steep Kidron Valley where the Garden of Gethsemane sits, back up to the Mount of Olives. There Jesus was with his closest disciples who are still aghast at his prediction, when they approached him.

When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, "Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?"

So they get caught up in worry, and Jesus reframes to something bigger.

"Beware that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name and say, 'I am he!' and they will lead many astray. When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birthpangs.

I am not sure how much of a comfort it was. Things will be bad. There will be wars and disaster, liars and apostates. So much to look forward to, but he was honest. Do not be alarmed. Stay true. Stay the course. Do what I taught you to do.
Another prayer from the BCP,  For Peace Among the Nations (BCP p. 816)

Almighty God our heavenly Father, guide the nations of the
world into the way of justice and truth, and establish among
them that peace which is the fruit of righteousness, that they
may become the kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

There are those that will come and lead many astray. “Nation will rise against nation…” “Wars and rumors of wars…” So easy to attach to this, especially this weekend. For the hundreds recently killed, for the thousands already killed in these conflicts, and the tens of thousands yet to be killed in the retaliation which has been promised, Jesus reminds his followers and by extension us, that there will be many distractions. There will be many things that will cause us worry. Horrible things have happened. Horrible things will continue to happen. That is the shadow side of living in a world with free will.  

More worrisome for me is his warning about some who come in his name. “I am he.” Remember Jim Jones? Or how about David Koresh? Many a looney or psycho have said they were him. But even those are not the ones I worry most about. Most people can see right through their lies. It is the people who will lead others astray from what he taught. When people take the message of Jesus and tie it to nationalism, patriotism, capitalism, or socialism. Name your -ism and Jesus’ power and authority has been and will continue to be absconded for the sake of power and legitimacy.

To keep ourselves from going down the slippery slope we need to always stay focused on Jesus and his instructions.

And what was it he taught? Think on those simple phrases we teach our children. What does it boil down to? Radical love.

Love God with all you’ve got and your neighbor as yourself.

Love your enemy.

Love till it hurts.

Love till it kills you.

And then keep on loving.  Remember Jesus, even on the cross? “Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do?”

His message is as radical then as it is in the wake of Paris. And Syria. And Lebanon. And Charleston. And Kenya. And Calvary. Over and over we hear the horrors. We feel the fear. And when we do, we need to share the love all the more.

Will loving exact a cost? Yes. Ask any martyr in our history.

Will it be easy? No. Ask any saint.

And yet, we are called by Jesus to take his yoke on us, and learn from him. He is not telling us to just go and figure it out. He says, look to me and see what to do. And then go, and do likewise. Without that I would not know what to do in days like these. I would not know where to find my hope.

In fact the only hope this world has is love. An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, might be biblical. But it also leaves us blind and hungry.

Jesus even reframed that, and took the conversation to a higher level. He shared this in the Sermon on the Mount.

‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven…’ Matthew 5:43-45a

At the installation of our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, he spoke about this Jesus Movement through history, and how we are the Episcopal branch of that movement. In the most stirring moment for me he reminded us, “If it is not about love, it is not about God.”

I have shared two prayers from our Prayer Book so far today, and I want to close with a third. We have prayed for peace, from page 815, if you want to look it up later. We have prayed for the nations, from page 816. Today I want to close with another. I close with:

A Prayer For our Enemies (BCP p. 816)

O God, the Father of all, whose Son commanded us to love
our enemies: Lead them and us from prejudice to truth:
deliver them and us from hatred, cruelty, and revenge; and in
your good time enable us all to stand reconciled before you,

through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Monday, November 2, 2015

"My Soul Waits" All Souls Day 2015: a sermon

“My Soul Waits”
All Souls Day, Nov. 2, 2015
St. Thomas’ Episcopal, Richmond

Wisdom of Solomon 3:1 “But the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, and no torment will ever touch them.”
Tonight we remember by name our loves whom we have lost, from our sight, but not our hearts. We stop tonight to name our losses. We name them so we do not forget. In a few moments we will name some of my dearly departed along with yours, and of those who could not be with us tonight.

Some days it is easy to feel them close, to feel the impact they had on our lives. To feel the continuing echo from the life they led. Part of me hungers for the touch of a hand, for the warmth of a voice, and I know they will not happen. But the ache is there, the longing remains. It remains because we love. True Love never dies.

Our Lord and Savior promises us in our reading from John, “The dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live.” Our dear loved ones in Christ are not gone, even though they are not with us.

My wife and I used to have a dog with deep anxieties. When he would be left, he thought it was forever. He thought it was for always. And sometimes, he would wreck the house in his despair. “Mom and Dad are never coming back! What am I to do?!?!” A sense of time is not something dogs possess. Fortunately we do. We can remember what came before, and we can look ahead to what can come.

As I have grown and matured, I have been able to see the ways my life has been directed, and those experiences have helped my grow in my faith and understanding. The one who has been with me all along will not forsake or abandon me. More and more I see that we are not physical beings having a spiritual experience, but rather we are spiritual beings having physical experience. We come from love, and to love we shall return. When we transition from this life to the next we are welcomed home.

I lost my father when I was very young, and I have now lived three and a half times longer without him than I did with him. There is not a week that goes by that I do not actively miss him, and I would give anything in this world for 5 minutes more or for a chance for him to meet his grandchildren. But alas, it will not happen on this side of heaven.

Tonight we gather together, to be the children of God, bearing one another’s burdens and grief, and sharing our own as well. Yesterday, we were reminded that Jesus wept, with those who mourned and to mourn himself. Isaiah’s prophecies spoke of Jesus, I believe, being a man of sorrows, one acquainted with grief. (Is. 53:3) We come together in his name, and he is here in our midst, holding our burdens close, weeping as we weep.

But the story does not end there. Just as Lazarus returning and Christ’s own resurrection make promises that there is something beyond, we hold this hope that their is life beyond holding those we miss and a hope-filled promise for us as well. C. S. Lewis likened dying to a small child playing on a carpet with their toys, so enamored that they fall asleep not even knowing they had done so, only to awaken in their sun-drenched bedroom in their pajamas tucked in so snug with the dawn of a new day. He says it will be like that, and yet we live with fear and worry about what is to come. I, like Lewis, look to the steps God has taken with me in this life, and also to the promises of Scripture that have rung true for me, and I can look to the future with the eyes of faith that all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well. It is with that faith, that I wait for the Lord.
Psalm 130
I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I hope;
my soul waits for the Lord
  more than those who watch for the morning,
  more than those who watch for the morning.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

"We who walk as yet by faith" All Saints' 2015:a sermon

“We who walk as yet by faith”
All Saints Day, Nov 1, 2015
St. Thomas’ Richmond, VA

Collect for All Saints’ Day: Almighty God, you have knit together your elect in one communion and fellowship in the mystical body of your Son Christ our Lord: Give us grace so to follow your blessed saints in all virtuous and godly living, that we may come to those ineffable joys that you have prepared for those who truly love you; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.
Today we remember. That is my prayer for us. That we remember.

Now you are probably thinking that I want us to remember the great cloud of witnesses, that surround the quick saints of God, according to Hebrews. But that is not what I want us to remember.

Last night I joined in the festivities,  All Hallow’s Eve, or All Saints’ Eve as it would probably be called now if we had not made it Halloween. The fun mix and mingle of the pagan, the profane, the terrible, the joy of childhood, and the candy. So much candy. And for the last few weeks we have been surrounded by the spirit of Halloween. Ghosts and goblins have been on our TVs, and the commercial costumes have filled our stores, along with the candy, so much candy. Last night I became Gandalf and had at least one hundred people say, “YOU SHALL NOT PASS! My children dressed as a knight and the grim reaper, and went from house to house collecting candy. So much candy.

And during the weeks leading up to Halloween, I have watched a couple of my favorite scary movies to help set the mood. There is a time and place to be scared, and this season as the days grow darker and the nights are so long it is natural to have our times turn to the dark.

Telling scary stories is fun, and some of my favorite memories are sitting around campfires spinning yarns and sharing tales. But recently, far from a campfire, I have heard some scary stories here at church, but they were not meant to be scary. So many of them have been shared in the most rational and concern-filled way. Sometimes the stories took the form of a pointed question, with the expected response obvious. Sometimes the scary stories were shared with me, looking for a quick and easy solution.

What were these scary stories? They were concerns and worries about St. Thomas’.

Why are the numbers so low? What are we going to do? How can we keep doing so much with so little? How can we meet budget next year? How can we scale back?

You see, no matter how we ask the question, or share the concern, or whisper our worry, these are all scary stories. They are not scary because of their content. They are scary because they are asked from a place of fear, no matter how good their intention. Fear. I said it. We are acting afraid. We are worried.

And soon as move out of our Stewardship season next week [BRING YOUR PLEDGE CARDS NEXT WEEK] and we begin the budgeting process, we may be tempted to act out of fear. And living in fear is a luxury that we cannot afford. FDR was right, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” In fact, let me give you the whole sentence from his first inaugural address because it is even better than the soundbite.  “So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” He speaks to us today, too. St. Thomas’, all we have to fear is fear. Our future is bright. We need to act from our future for our future, plan for it, and live into our faith. No more. But definitely, no less.

Think of it this way, if we want to get somewhere we have our destination in mind. If we have a flat tire, we fix the tire, and continue on our way. We don’t stop, fix the tire, and then freeze with inaction. We keep on keeping on.

When I was thirteen or fourteen, I went with my scout troop for our annual week at Scout camp. It was a fun week of campfires, working on merit badges, and just spending a great week in the woods. I took a class to get my rowing merit badge. One of the particulars of the badge was to overturn a rowboat and right it. Unlike a canoe, overturning a rowboat is really hard. And righting it is significantly harder than a canoe, too.

I was with another scout, and after having to work so hard to flip our rowboat we decided to rest. And when I say rest, I mean goof off. And when I say goof off, I mean act stupid. Kids, do not try this at home. You see, an overturned rowboat makes an awfully good submarine. Flipped over there is a ton of space underneath the boat and a huge pocket of air is inside. We had fun going in and out, “while we were resting.” Now, like most early teens, we thought we were smart. We were wearing our PFDs, our Personal Flotation Devices, and they so drilled us I find it hard even today to avoid the name life-jacket.

So we were in our PFDs going in and out of the overturned rowboat. Inside was wonderful, the light from the bright sunshine filled the water and one could see well under the boat. Also, with its boxy aluminum hull it was as solid overturned as it was upright. It was not going anywhere. It was all fun and games, until it wasn’t.

One time going back under, in my PFD which was forcing me up, the oarlock came down at the moment I was ducking under. The oarlock is the funny horseshoe shaped thing an oar rests in while rowing. It caught me between my PFD and my shirt, but because we were upside down, it did not lock into place.It stayed loose, and went with me. As I was going under to get inside the boat, when it caught me, I also took a huge gulp of water before I realized I was caught. I tried to turn and get my mouth above water inside the but my mouth and nostrils just could not reach. So I tried backing out. I went back out, but outside the boat was even worse. I must have gone in and out two or three times. And by this point I was panicking.

Once again today, I will name it. I was drowning. I was drowning in the water, yes. But why was I drowning? I was drowning in my fears. How am I going to get out of this? What will happen to me? What about my family? My mind was racing, pinging in my terror from one bad scenario to another. And then I heard a voice. A calm slow voice. If you don’t THINK, you will die. I don’t know where that voice came from. May have been my common sense that I was not using at the time. It may have been that still small voice we have to slow down to hear. Where it came from I don’t know, but it was what I needed to hear.

What I do know was, I listened. And I remember saying in response, You’re right. So I stopped. I stopped struggling; I slowed my heart from its racing. Instead of struggling to get away, I dealt with the cause instead of reacting to the effect it had on me. I reached up, found the oarlock behind my head, found where it had caught under the PFD and was now twisted in my shirt, carefully worked it free and then went outside the boat, got a huge breath of air, and then spat up all that I swallowed in my time caught underwater. The other scout I had out there with me in the middle of that lake, was totally clueless that all this had happened. He was goofing around on the other side of the boat.

I get that same feeling sometimes when I hear these questions, that same tone of panic I had in my mind when I was drowning. The water and the oarlock were factors, but remember, what had me drowning was my fear having me struggle and go from one hopeless situation to another. If you don’t THINK, you will die. I find I need to remind myself of that at times.

The decisions I make in fear are not the best ones. The decisions and actions made from fear put us at our worst. I do not think it is an accident that angels always start with “Fear not!” whenever they show up to bring a message. We cannot be at our best when we are controlled by our fears.

One of the most poignant portrayals of the nature of Jesus happens in today’s Gospel reading. We are given the image of a Messiah who weeps.
John 11
32 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."
33 When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.
34 He said, "Where have you laid him?" They said to him, "Lord, come and see."
35 Jesus began to weep.
36 So the Jews said, "See how he loved him!"

Jesus you see, did not deny what he was feeling. He was deeply moved. He was moved for Mary and her friends in their distress, as he was moved for Lazarus his own friend who had died. But even then, he looked with the eyes of faith. He looked beyond his sorrow, and the sorrow of those around him so trapped in their grief they cannot think straight. He looked to the tomb with the eyes of faith who saw “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” (Hebrew 11:1) And in so doing called Lazarus forth from not only the tomb but from death itself.

Jesus and all those who have died in the Lord urge us to see with the eyes of faith, not at what is, but what could be. As Hebrews reminds us, “Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside the sin that clings so closely and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith…” (12:1-2a)

Halloween is over. Let us put away the Season of Fear. Today is All Saints’ Day. Think on the thousands that have helped get us to where they are today? Is there hard work ahead? Yes. Are there hard decisions ahead? Yes. But neither of those should be in our way of continuing to be the faithful, not fearful, servants of God in our time and in this space here at the corner of Hawthorne and Walton.

Yesterday I had the privilege and honor to help lay to rest two dear saints of God. And during the prayers one struck me. This one tends to do so. And it goes with what we are talking about here today. The best way to honor those that have come before us is not to celebrate the glories of the past in memoriam. But rather, the best way to honor that great cloud of witnesses that have gotten us to this time and to this place is to continue the work that they started in the same spirit and joy they had in their walk. The prayer from the Burial Rite:

Grant to us who are still in our pilgrimage, and who walk as yet by faith, that thy Holy Spirit may lead us in holiness and righteousness all our days.

I started today with saying I want you to remember. I still do. We have recognized the saints come before us, but they want you to remember as well. Remember this, my baptized brothers and sisters: you are the saints of God, joining the ranks of those who have come before us. Let us drop the fear that only trips us, and let us move boldly into what God has in store. Amen.