This is the blog of the Rev. Rock Higgins: I am the Episcopal Priest to the Center of the Universe. Really. This blog goes from my ordination to the present. Sins of omission and commission are fully my own, and I am leaning on the Grace-upon-Grace in my following of Christ. I serve as the Rector of St. James the Less Episcopal Church in Ashland, VA, also known as the Center of the Universe (CotU) to the locals.
Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which your Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the living and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
In the last few weeks I have found myself waking up in the middle of the night, not knowing if it is nearer to bedtime or nearer to the alarm going off. Sometimes I find myself wide awake halfway, just as far from one as I am close to the other. And it sets me off-kilter. My orientation is out of whack. I have crossed time zones and an ocean twice, and my body is finally settling in to being back home, back to the now, if the Now is Eastern Standard Time.
I ask myself when it is, where I am, sometimes I am still in my dream and very confused. And in all of it, I look for a sign of where I am, and when I am. I seek out the here and now to get a point of view.
That is the point of this week’s readings, to get a point of view. As St. Paul called to the Romans then, and to us now, “You know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep.”
This is the first week of Advent, the first week of the liturgical calendar. There are three years in the cycle of lectionary readings, and this is Year A of those, so of the beginnings, we are starting that cycle fresh, too. And as we look at Advent 1, we look to the coming of Christ. It is also confusing, because we pretend that Christ has not yet come and we speak of the coming of Christ at Christmas, and yet we also speak of him coming again, as we say in the Eucharistic prayer, “Christ will come again.” Which is it? It is like I talked about a minute ago, we are between, Christ has come and we await his coming again. It is different from a night though, now that we have become enslaved to clocks and alarms. In Jesus’ day, we would await the cock’s crow, or the call of the night’s watch to see what time it might be, but alas, we don’t know where we are in this long night awaiting Jesus’ return. We must “watch and wait for the morning, watch and wait for the morning.”
And that is what Advent is about. The word Advent means the Arrival, or the Coming. And for whatever reason we are a disillusioned nation awaiting something to come, a difference, a change, SOMETHING ELSE! No matter the party affiliation or how one voted, the only thing this country can agree on is that we have gotten on the wrong track.
While I was in Liverpool a few weeks ago I spent a day in the city by myself, and was doing alright. I wanted a train back to the station I was going toward to my friend’s house where I was staying. I double and triple checked that this train went through the station I needed, Huyton Quarry. And asked to make sure. I asked, “Does this go through Huyton?” The answer was yes. I saw that the landmarks we passed on the way into town were the same ones I saw on the way out, and I was feeling good. That is until we sped right through Huyton Quarry, and kept going at 80 or 90 miles an hour. You see, I was on the right track, but had gotten on the wrong train. We went THROUGH Huyton, sure enough, and did so rather quickly. I was on the EXPRESS train. I had asked the wrong question, and had to get off at the next stop and run across to take the next LOCAL that would STOP in Huyton. Even when we are on the right track we need to make sure that the train we board will get us where we need to go.
Today I wear purple, a color of contrition. I could have worn purple on the day I got on the wrong train. We wear purple in Lent for the preparation for Easter. We wear the same in Advent, preparing for the Lord’s Arrival, his Advent. This is when we make sure that we are on the right track, and the right train, to get us where we need to be going.
It can happen to anyone. It happened to me, despite my best efforts to get to Huyton, and my mad scramble to get back to where I wanted and needed to go. Biblically, remember the Wise Men, they stopped at Herod’s assuming that the Promised One would be born in the palace, and the scholars even had to look up and see that it was actually in Bethlehem, ten miles or so down the road for the actual prophesied birthplace. The star got them close, but they almost missed their destination.
It can and does happen to the best of us, and that is why the lectionary and the Church in its wisdom gives us four weeks to get our individual and collective acts together before the dawning of this new age. Like I mentioned last week, I feel like I need a mulligan, a do-over for 2016. The year of BLECH, and you can quote me on that. 😄
And not just this year, but every year, we need to make sure that our hearts and minds are ready for the coming of the newborn king. When we were preparing for the coming of my oldest, we did what the baby books called “nesting.” We got our house in order, we painted and got new furniture. We got our 80 year old windows replaced with new vinyl insulated windows to cut down the drafts. We got our house in order.
It was all to schedule and going to plan, but my daughter had other ideas, and showed up a month early. It was such a frantic morning. It was the second day of a new school year, as I was working as a teacher. My wife was convinced that her water had broken in the shower, and I told her, if she was worried, to go and see the doctor. She did. And she had. She called me as they were wheeling her over to the hospital which fortunately was across the street from her ob/gyn’s office. And being the type of person she is, she called the kennel for the dog before she called me so I could drop him off on the way to the hospital. And we did not have our car seat yet. We had it picked out, but I did not get it yet. It was at Target, right next to the kennel, so I stopped there, too, so we could at least take the baby home. When I finally pulled into the hospital, after the kennel, and after Target, Steph looked at me like, “Where were you?!?” Despite all our plans and preparations we were not ready, because no one knows the time and the hour. And that is what our Lord and Savior reminds us. Matthew 24:36 and following: Jesus said to the disciples, “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. ...Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.”
Whenever I hear some quack tell me that they have heard a word from the Lord, or have read the signs and know when Jesus is coming back, I always go back to this passage in my mind. If Jesus does not know, then why on earth would God the Father tell anyone else? So I do not get worried, but I actually laugh. And then I pray for all the folks who this charlatan will doop. It actually makes me sad. We are warned so that we can be ready, not so that someone can have some special knowledge or power. Sad, very sad.
“But understand this,” Jesus continues, “if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”
A story is told about missionaries to a village in Southeast Asia, and they had their houses built on stilts, in case of flooding and so that all the animals they kept could have a place to stay and be easily accessible. It worked for the villagers, and they had lived that way for generations. The American missionaries, however, were not used to it at all, and the nightly dogfights, and clucking, and oinking and hullabaloo was about to put the couple into an asylum, and the sleep deprivation made it so that they were not very able to share the Gospel or even be pleasant.
But one night, they were settling in for a night’s sleep and a quiet settled over the entire village. They couple made note of it as they said their prayers and their goodnights. After the first full night’s sleep in weeks, they woke up as satisfied as they could be. They were so happy that they were almost in tears, and in a few moments those tears became real. The bed they were sleeping in was still there, but everything, EVERYTHING that they owned had been stolen. All their furniture, all their clothes EVERYTHING. Just like the Grinch, they had cleaned house and the well-rested missionaries were dumbstruck. What happened?
They went to tell their neighbors what had happened. The neighbors were shocked and surprised at their ignorance. One even said, “How could you not be ready? We all knew the thieves were coming down out of the hills. Did you not hear the SILENCE?” You see, the roving bandits from the hills had snuck into the village and had slit the dogs’ throats. The very thing these newcomers had despised were their salvation, and they did not even know. While we do not know when the thief will come, there were signs and warnings.
We do not know when Christ will return, but we do know how to be ready and prepare. St. Paul sums it up well, telling us how to live our lives so that we are not caught unaware, and that we are well prepared. Romans 13:11-14You know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.
Maybe all this contentiousness that we are experiencing, this overall discontent is because we as a whole and maybe some of us individually have lost our way. We have gotten off the trail, or worse yet, maybe we even forgot where we were trying to get to in the first place. But God gave us today, a new day, a new season, a new liturgical year to turn back towards the light and get on God’s path again. As we heard from the prophet Isaiah(2:5):
O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord! Amen.
Proper 29, Christ the King Sunday, 20 November 2016
St. David’s, Aylett, Virginia
Today’s Collect: Almighty and everlasting God, whose will it is to restore all things in your well-beloved Son, the King of kings and Lord of lords: Mercifully grant that the peoples of the earth, divided and enslaved by sin, may be freed and brought together under his most gracious rule; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
This is the last Sunday on the Christian calendar for this year. It is commonly known as Christ the King Sunday. And I do not know about you, but I am ready to celebrate the end of this year. It was a banner year, a horrible, rotten, messed-up banner of a year. I am ready for it to be over. So forgive me if we jump past December and decide to put a wrap on 2016. We can start over with Advent Week One next Sunday.
So many celebrities I loved and cared about passed, and this ugly election season and the aftermath since the outcome, have all taken a toll on us as a nation and on many of us individually. So many people I have seen online are dreading Thanksgiving because of the heated interchanges they are dreading over a table they are supposedly gathering around to be thankful. And that does not even count if there were personal issues in our lives. I am ready to close the books on 2016.
So, in light of that, I think it is more than appropriate to focus on the main thing. “The main thing is keeping the main thing the main thing,” says leadership guru Stephen Covey. And in the church, if Jesus is not our main thing, are we really even the church?
So I would invite you to let go of all the distractions that we have and for the next few minutes, let’s just look at Jesus. Just Jesus.
Since I was with you last on October 30th, I have covered a lot of miles. Two Sundays ago, I was standing in the pulpit of St. Gabriel’s Church in Liverpool. It was a profound and moving time. But something took me aback. In the midst of the service we prayed and promised our support for the Queen, or they did. I am a little too red-blooded American to be okay with that. We have been raised without a monarch. We have never had to bow the knee to another before. I will pray for any and every body. I have no problem praying for a Queen. However, I will not submit and swear allegiance to anybody. Democratic attitudes are a hard thing to shake. I should not have been surprised, it is the Church of England. But today, I do call us to bow the knee, and give our whole selves to our King, Christ the King.
Three amazing portraits are given today in our readings: a prophecy, a story, and a litany. All three paint a picture of a singular life, that is unique in all of human history. Jesus, the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords.
Zechariah, in this beautiful prophetic utterance, calls all who heard to the importance of his son’s birth and the one that his son will point towards, his cousin, Jesus son of Joseph.
Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel; *
he has come to his people and set them free.
He has raised up for us a mighty savior, *
born of the house of his servant David.
The one who is to come, prophesied of old, has finally arrived. Zechariah was convinced, having not spoken for months in response to his doubt over the angel’s message over his son’s birth. Remember he was the father of John the Baptizer and a priest for the faithful. He declares that the time has come, the fulness of time has been fulfilled, and the long-awaited Savior is at hand. He believed, he declared it, and calls us today to faith in him.
And as we look to this Jesus, let us go next to the Gospel, and see what we can make from some of his final moments before his death. They often say that it is in the trial that our true nature comes out, and our Savior’s mettle came forward on the cross better than any other time and place. He was a king, but not of this world; he was a lord, but did not act lordly. All could approach him, and it was never more evident than when the convict hanging beside in his guilt asked for Grace. So often, too often, I hear Christians speaking of people getting their just deserts. Nothing could be more antithetical to the Gospel. Think of the woman caught in adultery and thrown naked at Jesus’ feet. Think of the scorned woman at the well, and how Jesus made her into an evangelist to her own village, the people who looked on her with scorn for past sins. And here, one rightfully convicted and condemned, with his final breaths he asks for a mere remembrance by Jesus, and yet, un-deserved by our standards, he is invited into Paradise. Grace, my friends, Grace.
The miracle of the Incarnation is not that Jesus looks like God, in fact that is what he calls all of us to do and be, but rather, the miracle of the Incarnation is that we see what God is really like when we look at Jesus. There are so many competing views and ideas out there, even amongst us who claim to be following this poor man from Nazareth, and yet in his final moments he is still pouring out Grace, not crying for vengeance. “Today you will be with me in Paradise!” “Forgive them, Father, they don’t know what they are doing!” “John, look at your mother, now; Mother, look to your son.” “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” This is what God looks like, and we look on in awe. He who could command the legions of angels, he who can calm the storm, he who can call forth the lifeless corpse back to life, he pronounces pardon, he declares Grace.
He is my King of Kings, and my Lord of Lords. And he calls us to do the same.
I go to the New Testament reading last, because it is chronologically after the Gospel. Paul is writing to the Church in Colossae, and giving them an image called the Cosmic Christ by many scholars. It is the preincarnate word at work in the universe, and the litany of attributes are beautiful and daunting to comprehend.
Jesus is the beloved Son
This is so important, beloved, Agapetos in the Greek, and like all good things, it begins in love. The love of the Father for his only begotten Son, and from this we can look to the things he does, beyond who he is.
in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.
Through this single life, he opens the door of redemption, flings them wide so that we may enter in.
He is the image of the invisible God
When we wonder what God is like, we look to Jesus. Like I said, the miracle of the Incarnation is that God is like Jesus. So often we try to portray God very differently from this.
the firstborn of all creation;
He is at the beginning, the spiritual Adam as Paul says in Romans. Jesus was begotten, and that leads us to...
for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers-- all things have been created through him and for him.
He came first so that all other things might be. The agent of Creation acting on behalf of the Father.
He himself is before all things
This hearkens back to the beautiful introduction to the Gospel of John, which probably was actually written after this was. “In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God.” Being begotten, not made, as we say in the Creed, he necessarily must predate Creation, as he is not a creature. Therefore he is before all things, light, matter, suns, moons, planets, us.
in him all things hold together.
He is the glue that holds the universe in check, keeping it all together. He is the underpinning of all reality.
He is the head of the body, the church
We are his body, and our prayer, our calling, our reason for existence is so that he can lead us. It is said, “Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world. Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are his body. Christ has no body now on earth but yours.” -Teresa of ÀvilaMay we ever stay connected.
he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything.
As stated, Paul declares him the second Adam, birthing a new race, a new lineage of the righteous.
For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.
In him the fullness of God was pleased to dwell. And we may enter into relationship with God through the blood of his cross, we may enter heaven itself, not by anything we have done, but by what he did for us. We like that duly crucified criminal on the cross beside him, we asked to be blessed and Jesus looks at us and says we already have been. We are told that we will be with him in Paradise.
As we come to his table, let this day be one of feasting. And on Thursday, when we feast again, pause, and say thank you for the Great Thanksgiving at this table, at your Table, and one day, at Christ’s Table where we will be welcomed home.
Is he your King of Kings and Lord of Lords? As we hear our friends and family squabble over the pettiness of power and control in this nation which will pass away, remember and celebrate that we are not of this world, and neither is our King. The world is not enough for him, worthy of all honor and glory and power in all of creation. Think on that, and be humbled. Think on that, and be saved. May our King “guide our feet into the way of peace.” Amen.
Little did we realize how long this hiatus would last. Someone told me this morning that this was a test of faith. It's a test of something, that is for sure. Since we last checked in mid-October I have been running full force, and cannot believe the miles covered in so short a time. I went to Del Ray Beach, Florida for a week of learning and growth with the Church Pension Group's CREDO for Recently Ordained Clergy. While I have been in the ministry since 1987 (wow, I feel old all of a sudden), my being a retread makes me a newbie in some people's eyes. It was a unique program that they have decided to discontinue, so it was now or never to finish year 2 of the 2 year program. I accomplished much that was on my action plan, most rewarding was finishing my book on discipleship (1st round) and now I am hot and heavy in edits and rewrites. I am also looking and praying for a publisher. We will see. My health is better, my goals are more clear, and I accomplished much. The best thing that happened, probably, was the encouragement I received to get a Life Coach to help focus my ADD tendencies and put my energy to accomplishing my goals. I found a wealth in a Coach who also does Spiritual Direction, so I did not have to translate or explain. We started on the same page and accomplished much. During our time at CREDO I was able to see how far I had come and re-set my Rule of Life and next steps to be who I feel God is calling me to be. I had a whirlwind 4 days at home, enough time to do laundry, get Halloween costumes together, carve pumpkins, and repack. Stephanie, my ever-loving wife, has had to pull the lions' share, with a lot of help from my in-laws, to enable my travels. After leading worship at St. David's in Aylett on October 30, we drove quickly and directly to Dulles to get me on the plane to Dublin and Liverpool. I spent the next eleven days building relationships and contacts at our linked diocese, and representing the Diocese of Virginia at the Partners for Global Mission conference (the Anglican Communion's World Missions Conference) and at talks about the Triangle of Hope between Liverpool, Kumasi (Ghana) and Virginia. It was humbling and wonderful. I have always had Wanderlust that I inherited from my mother, and getting to see and experience so much was a gift. The Church is alive and well, with many exciting opportunities, and for a life-long Beatle's fan, doing the Hajj to Liverpool was a dream come true. Got to see all four of the Fab Four's homes growing up, and the Cavern Club where they made their fame. For being unemployed, I have been extremely busy as a Priest-at-Large. God's providence has been obvious and moving. Mal, my dear friend and host in Liverpool went out of his way to be gracious and accommodating to his huge, vegetarian friend. I always have tried to be exceptional, but alas, I tend more to be an exception (to the rule). I appreciate many who take care of me when I needed it. Grace. While away there were several positions around the country that have reached out to me. And it is comforting to know that God can work with me anywhere, and this time of discernment is whether it is time to cut ties with our beloved Richmond and go further afield. I do not believe we are at that point yet, but resources are coming to the point where that may be necessary soon. Some more local opportunities are finally coming open, and we will see how they fly. The looming part of this last month, one I even dread bringing up, is the election, but I would be remiss not discussing what has taken up too much of my personal and our collective bandwidth. I am a liberal, and tend to vote Democratic. I take these stances based on my view that I take from Scripture that we are the Keepers of each other, you of me and me of you. It is one of the oldest stories in Scripture and foundational to my understanding. I believe in common things, in common ills, and common wealth. I will fight and stand for this personal belief, and the shift in this country over the last few weeks brings forward a lot of fears and worries. In fact, the morning of the news (5 a.m. for me in England) that Trump was President Elect I felt a strong urge to go home. It is our country's Bonhoeffer moment. (Bonhoeffer was a German theologian who returned to Germany under Hitler so that he could help rebuild the Church in Germany after the regime was over. He was executed for a part he played in an attempted assassination of Hitler.) Is the Church to be the Church of Christ in our culture, working for love of neighbor and enemy, or will we be the cultural equivalent of lukewarm oatmeal? I had joked with foreign friends that we would need sponsors if Trump were elected, but the joking stopped that morning. The sad reality, for me, was a sobering call for return and work to fight the rising demagoguery that is already rearing its ugly head. The announcements and steps already taken in these few days are in lock(goose)step with the choices of the Nazis when they came to power after the Reichstag fire. I will love my friends who are fearful, and I will do my best to love those that are rejoicing. In all of it I pray that I preach and teach and live the Gospel of Christ, a teaching of humble and sacrificial love for all God's children. May this always be the case. The days ahead look like they will be ones where that faith will be put to the test. May I, may we, be proven faithful. So, for not having been "employed", my vocation has been hard at work, and a way forward has been delineated. The love and support of my family and extended family has never been greater, or more appreciated. The future is bright, and we have our work cut out for us. Hopefully by this time next month, a clearer picture of firm ground will be seen and I can announce next steps. Blessings and thanks, Rock+
Since the election last week, several things have been stuck in my craw. I have bones to pick, mostly internally, some communally. All need to be addressed now, though. Somewhere along the way we have become lost. We have lost our way. I do not seek people to be in lockstep with me, far from it. I believe in a multitude of voices and attitudes. In fact, one of the great needs in our society is to be confronted by the other. We have created a society where we can live in silos, isolated by our own opinions, biases and ignorance. We all need a Cheers, the bar in the sitcom, where everybody loved Norm, and everybody put up with Cliff. We all have a place, especially the different.
Early on in my married life, I learned an important life lesson. My wife and I were having dinner and we were talking about something. Whatever she said, I took a contrarian point of view for fun and to bolster the conversation. In my family of origin, that is what we did. We would debate and spar and refute, and it was fun. I was doing what I had always done. She looked at me like I was from Mars. She found it the opposite of fun, and was actually hurt. We have come a long way since then. I do not put these ideas out there to be contrarian or against anyone. My hope for this piece is actually to put some ideas out there that we can all look at and wrestle with and hopefully celebrate and resonate the overlapping of our isolated circles.
Enough preamble, I invite you to join me in perusing our Common Wealth, and maybe give us some approaches to difference and opinions, and hear with understanding when we cannot give agreement. Listening is free. Empathy has a cost, but still does not have to step to common ground. Sympathy is the only path ahead for all our sakes.
Our Common Understanding
One of the greatest cringe moments for me over the last 8 years and just as much, if not more, the last few days, is the chant “Not My President!” The hashtag #notmypresident is an ignoring of the situation we find ourselves in and a position of privilege that needs to be addressed.
The President is my President. And the President Elect will be, barring anything unforeseen.They may very well not be my candidate or choice, but there is only one president for good or ill. I am addressing here the personal pronoun. It is the statement of a petulant two-year-old to scream MINE about any and everything. What I would invite us to move toward is the plural possessive, OUR. I will out myself. I did not vote for Donald Trump, and voted for Hillary to stop him from becoming President Elect. However, despite my wishes and work, he won the vote of the electors (pending their December 19 vote). It appears to be the case. He is OUR President Elect. Don’t like it. Celebrate it. Either does not change the fact that he won in the system that we use. Express your outrage. Fine. When you chant, however, “Not MY President” we cannot go to anywhere with that. It closes all conversation and ability to go anywhere else. It seems to be a response, but it is the equivalent of plugging one’s ears and closing one’s eyes and humming. It just does nothing but close out anything other than the internal.
I would say, no matter one’s feelings, stop using MY. Trump is OUR President Elect. Protest that. Call for change. Call for a delineation on issues and actions. Demand to be heard and demand to be recognized. OUR President must respond. If not, then we are lost. Our common understanding can exclude no one, the ones who voted for Trump who put us here, or the majority who did not and are affronted. OUR understanding of ourselves needs to be communal, not sectarian. I do not wish for their demise. I pray they do not wish for mine. For those that do wish for my demise or those that oppose or disagree with them, let them out themselves and let us see them for what they are. Let us fight that, not the vast majority of centrists who can see and say the WE are all in this together, and WE need to fight for ALL OUR betterment. We will disagree on how to do that, but let us do it from a perspective of MUTUAL respect and COMMON understanding. Why?
Our Common Love
I would say and I would argue that those that are crying and those that are cheering are people who LOVE America. We have that in COMMON. How we express that and how we act on that will differ, but can’t we all agree that we are coming from a COMMON MOTIVATION? How we define what our Founders meant by “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness” does differ. But can we no longer see that that is the outcome we are aiming for?
In many of the groups and organizations I have been a part of, when we come to major differences, it is almost always over underlying assumptions that have not been addressed. People assumed that everyone understood the same thing the same way. They did not see another perspective. Having another point of view is NOT EVIL, unless their point of view is to promote and encourage EVIL. It is merely holding another point of view. When I have led groups who have gotten themselves to this space, I try to find common ground. I try to move from an issue to a name and a face. People may say and think that they hate Issue X, but when I invite them to see that John and Jane here believe or hold the opinion of Issue X, I ask do we hate them? I have never had someone say yes. Ever. When we move it from the theoretical to the personal, it becomes very different. It is easy to counter a foreign concept, but when you have a story attached to a face and a name, we begin to hear each other. Our COMMON LOVE, this wonderful and beautiful and permanently flawed experiment called America is the longest continuous democracy in the world. We are fast running to an edge of a cliff where that will no longer be possible because we are limiting and ignoring the other that we hear. We cannot be ruled by the people when we do not listen to the voice of half of them, no matter our side. Can we not agree to see we all love this great land, and that we all have a right to believe and think and feel the way that we do?
I was in England when the election happened, and in my processing of my emotions with my Brit friends they asked why we do not outlaw extremist voices. Shocked and surprised, I heard myself passionately defending the right of Free Speech guaranteed in the First Amendment. It is written into my DNA. I speak publicly as part of my living, and I write as well. I say what I want to say, and I express what I want to express. I believe that this is a God-given right, and I will fight for that right for me and I will fight for that right for you. EVEN IF IT IS SPEECH THAT I CONDEMN! I love that about this country. It is an underlying gem that we seem to be ignoring. Protests, legal and safe, should be celebrated. When it moves into vandalism or violence, it is no longer speech but crimes. And that is a different issue.
I ask that we recognize our Common Understanding, WE ARE AMERICA. All of us. And I ask that we see that we all share a COMMON LOVE, that same America. WE ALL LOVE AMERICA and what she stands for. And because of that we can face and name the elephant in the room.
Our Common Fear
Somewhere along the way, we became afraid. My hunch is the morning of September 11, 2001. Our vague response to a vague enemy keeps us always on edge. I remember the night we killed bin Laden. I was surprised by the roar of approval by so many young adults, barely cognizant when 9/11 happened. And then it struck me. Their Voldemort had been killed. Their Boogey Man had been outed and destroyed. It was a haunting demon in their psyche, and now that they were free of him it was like watching the Munchkins in Oz after Dorothy’s house crushed the Wicked Witch of the East. I could not wrap my head around it, because it was not coming from their heads. It snuck out of the dark recesses of their hearts, their childhood fears at their worst was no more. The restrained older ones among us did not celebrate in the streets, knowing that the vague fear was more than a man, more than one name. And that haunting fear has not left us. It remains.
We have been played by both sides, tapping into that fear. Watching both candidates and how bin Laden, and ISIS, and immigrants, and Mexicans, and homosexuals, and health care, and… All of the major issues brought up were fear based. They kept us afraid to keep us in check and steal our power from us.
I would propose that we let go of the fear. A hero is not someone who is not afraid. A hero is someone who is afraid and acts anyway. And that is what we need to do. We need to admit our fears, and in the vulnerability, we need to reach out to our neighbors and our enemies and the stranger in our midst. We need to love our neighbors, as much as we love ourselves. And in that Common Love, we need to help each other get past our Common Fear. Together we are greater than this. We are the UNITED STATES, and yet, we let ourselves become the DIVIDED STATES. God help us. God forgive us. It says in God we trust on our currency, and it's about time we look to our neighbor whose face we can see. In the Holy Book I read, at the very beginning it talks about how each of us is made in the image of God. I believe that to be true. And if it is true, than for me to say I trust in God, but not God’s reflection, I am a liar. We need to find our Common Understanding that this is OUR Nation, and that WE is all we’ve got. We need to find our Common Love, of this country and each other. And we need to recognize and help each other through and past our Common Fear and anxiety that has driven our nation for far too long. I know we can. Will we?
Our Common Wealth
America is already great. And it can be greater yet. The Past Is Prologue, or so it is inscribed on our National Archives. I believe that all of us together can be and can remain this God-blessed America that we all hold dear.
Listen. Talk. Respect. Forgive. And yes, Love. That is the only way forward. We can be reconciled. We have to be. It will be long and hard work, but WE can do hard things.
St. Gabriel’s Church of England, Huyton Quarry, Liverpool, England
2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17
Greetings in the name of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. I bring greetings from the Diocese of Virginia, Bishops Shannon Johnston and Bishop Suffragan Susan Goff. Thank you for your gracious welcome, and I apologize for being a distraction this week to our mutual friend Reverend Mal.
Speaking of distractions, our texts are exactly that, examples of distractions from what should have the majority of our focus and attention. I come from a distracted nation. For the last several months we have been focused and fixated on what should be minor attractions instead of the center stage of our lives. It has divided our communities, our churches, and our families. It is admittedly with some relief that this week we will see an end to the distractions, and by the time we wake on Wednesday, the headache, I mean, the election of the United States president will be over. Thanks be to God. It has been more than enough.
When we major in the minors, when we let our focus be on the things that do not matter in long run, and probably should not matter at all, we get away from the lives God would have us live. So many things can derail us spiritually. Our health. Our economic situation. Our politics. Bad clergy-people. An American teacher and preacher put it this way, “If you pray a minute, people pray with you. If you pray five, people pray for you. If you pray longer than that, they pray against you.” So this morning I will keep it short and hopefully not be a spiritual hindrance to myself or any of you.
In Haggai, the prophet declares that God wants them to “Take courage.” Fear can be a huge distraction. In fact, I think one of the major ills in my nation since the 9/11 attacks is that we have become a fearful nation. We have learned and had reinforced to not trust our neighbor, and to trust the stranger in our midst even less. One of our great presidents, Franklin Delano Roosevelt said in his first inaugural address, when the country was still reeling from the Great Depression, these famous words, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Haggai says to his people the same thing. Do not be distracted by your fear! Or from the Scripture: “I am with you, says the LORD of hosts, according to the promise that I made you when you came out of Egypt. My spirit abides among you; do not fear!”
There have been times in my life when I have been afraid. Terrified in fact. And I think of the times when I chose to cower and give into my fear. Those are the times when I remember being most defeated. This situation did not def eat me, but my choosing to cower was a defeat of who God made me to be. There were other times when I was afraid and I stood up, and took a stand. Sometimes I triumphed, and sometimes I failed. But when I took courage and made a stand, I may have failed, but I was not a failure. I could say I had done my best, with what I had, and I did not hang my head. Fear is an enemy of who God is calling us to be. “Fear not!” says the Lord.
But Paul in Second Thessalonians looks at another distraction, deception. One of the problems of religious people in general is that we are believers. Believing in God is good, but believing anyone who comes along is not. Some of us err on the skeptical side of belief, and some of us err on the side of TB, and we have a raging case of True Believer-ism. But both of the extremes still fall on the side of the believing, and that can set us up for being tricked, conned, cajoled, and hoodwinked. We tend to give people the benefit of the doubt, and that is a hindrance of who God would have us be as well. It is, I believe, the shadow side of belief.
And here we are, almost 2,000 years later, still awaiting Christ’s return. Paul had to quell the excitement of this anticipation in the early days of the Church.
“As to the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered together to him, we beg you, brothers and sisters, not to be quickly shaken in mind or alarmed, either by spirit or by word or by letter, as though from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord is already here. Let no one deceive you in any way...”
Tricksters are out there. Jesus commanded us to be “as cunning as serpents and as innocent as doves.” Matthew 10:3 It is an issue which we have been warned that we will have to deal with. Even in this election, that I apologize I keep coming back to, BOTH SIDES have Christians claiming that God is for their candidate and only their side is righteous. Tricksters and charlatans. Still with us, and, sadly, I think they always will be. We need to not be distracted by those that would derail our walk with Christ, and in Christ, and for Christ.
But fear and deception are not our only distraction, we also have the hurdle of nit-pickiness to overcome. Yes, nit-pickiness. Is that a phrase here? Sometimes we zoom in on such small things that make no sense when we see things from the outside. The Sadducees were attempting to play Gotcha! with Jesus. Could they catch him being, in their minds, stupid? They are seeing if this young Rabbi is worth his reputation. They are playing theoretical theology. “What if…?” But Jesus calls them on it, he reproaches them for their hypocrisy and their distracting him. Others there wanted to learn and grow in their faith, and the Sadducees are playing games. The problem with their question is on whether the legalism on this side of heaven continues on into the next. They even could have been mocking Jesus, in that he, like the Pharisees believed in an afterlife. The Sadducees did not believe in anything coming after this life. With their ridiculous question, they are making fun of this belief and those who hold it. But even there, Jesus does not reject them, but raises the level of conversation, showing their foundational denial of the afterlife is a problem. Jesus goes back to Moses, who speaks of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of the Living, not of the dead. We might phrase in the New Testament language of the God who was and is and is to come, or Jesus being the same yesterday, today and forever. This distraction of diverting Jesus from what is most important is something that can happen to us in our spiritual lives, as well.
I could not come to Liverpool and not quote a Beatle, but this one is not a stretch. Sir Paul, in his love song Distractions, from his wonderful Flowers in the Dirt album, questions why he gets sidetracked and drawn away from the one who holds his heart:
Why are there always so many other things to do? Distractions, like butterflies are buzzing 'round my head, When I'm alone I think of you And the life we'd lead if we could only be free From these distractions.
Is it not the same with God? What draws us away from seeking first God’s Kingdom and God’s righteousness? I think all of us woul d have a different answer. I tell my church every year to do an inventory. Look at your calendar and your bank statements. Those will show you what you hold most important. Where is God’s church on your priorities? How about your daily agenda? Do you make space for God? That is often the easiest and first thing to go when we get busy and have our days taken away from us. I have found though, when the day gets at its worst, I need more to pray and listen, and to find God in Scripture. Like all things that are good for us, we mostly know what we should do, but these temptations and distractions that get in our way.
I have been blessed with two wonderful daughters, and my youngest has some special needs. Her name is Sojo, short for Sojourner named for an American hero, Sojourner Truth. A freed slave and early feminist. Our Sojo did not talk for the first few years of her life, and she is exceptionally bright but does not learn the way most schools teach, but she is a sponge for learning and now talks all the time. I am asked about any and everything all the time. And I mean all the time. But sometimes, when I am talking with her, she is somewhere else, in her head pondering the nature of the universe when I am asking her about what she wants for lunch. It is not that she does not try. She is just so curious that she cannot help but follow a mental rabbit if it goes running by her consciousness. So, if I am making her lunch, or whatever it is, my wife and I have found a phrase that draws her back. Instead of correcting her, we simply ask, “Are you with me, Sojo?” In preparing for today, I could see the smile on God’s face and how often he has had to ask of me, “Rock, are you with me?” “Rock, hello Rock, are you with me?” And God asks the same of all of us. In the midst of all the things that distract us, often good, important things, we hear God ask, “Are you with me?” Seek first the Kingdom of God, and God’s righteousness and all these things shall be added unto to you. I believe God means it. If we put God first, everything else will fall into place.
As we continue in our Christian walk, try to let go of whatever is holding you back, whatever is keeping you fully from being here today. Whatever is pulling you from this moment with Christ, can we try to let it go, just for a moment? I think you can, and I think that I can as well.
you were human like us. You felt fear in the Garden. You were deceived by one of your Twelve. You had many trying to distract you from what you came here to do, in so many ways. And yet, you stayed true to the end, fulfilling your purpose and creating in us a space to continue your work in this world. Free us from the distractions that hold us back and the sin that clings so closely, and this day, and every day, draw us closer to you.
God’s blessings be upon St. Gabriel’s and this community now and always. Listen for God’s voice, “Are you with me?” Amen. Thank you!