Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Year A Michaelmas 2017 Who Is Like God?

Year A Michaelmas (Observed), 27 September 2017
St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA
“Who Is Like God?”

Today we remember Michaelmas. (This is actually Friday, the 29th. And as I was born on this feast day, it is always a special one for me. In fact, when I was priested, Bishop Shannon invoked St. Michael in the Eucharist at my request.) One of the quarter days of the liturgical calendar, along with Lady Day (March 25- The Annunciation), Midsummer Day (June 24), and Christmas (December 25).

Angels, as we picture them, are deep in our psyche, portrayed in art and literature throughout the ages and across cultures. Angels are the messengers of the Divine. In fact, the word we use, ANGEL, is from the Greek word angelos for messenger. We still use it, also, in eu-angelion, good-news, in words like evangelist and evangelical.

My favorite image of angels comes from an obscure movie from German director Wim Wenders. In his movie, Wings of Desire (later remade poorly as City of Angels with Nicholas Cage and Meg Ryan), and angels are seen in the film as silent watchers. They are everywhere and with everyone. The device Wenders used was in the angelic point of view everything was black and white, and they had black trenchcoats instead of wings. But as the camera panned across rooms and landscapes, people going about their lives had an angel close by. In libraries and such, angels were whispering from behind with fingertips on shoulders affirmations and encouragements. I loved the idea of those “still, small voices” constantly encouraging us with the love of God. In our distracting, multi-colored world it is hard to remember what we are about. We are distractable, and maybe, the angels of our better nature are here to remind us and redirect us to what it is we are to be about.

I truly believe that angels are all around us, as God works in a myriad of ways and means to get the message of love and grace to us. And when I say that angels are all around us, I do not need them to be divine spiritual beings. You can be an angel to me, as I can be to you. God’s message can get to us in a lot of different ways. I know a lot of time, and energy, and money is spent on the idea of angels, and for me, getting bogged down on the details is often moot and it means we are missing the point. Angels are all about the message, and if they are literal, I believe that they would be upset that we were confusing the messenger with the message, which brings us to the namesake of this day, Michael.

I have always loved the idea and image of Michael. Most often he is portrayed with a weapon, a spear or sword, with his foot on the neck of a dragon or demon. We read this morning from Revelation where it is said, “War broke out in heaven; Michael and his angels fought against the dragon. The dragon and his angels fought back, but they were defeated, and there was no longer any place for them in heaven.”

In the words from John’s Vision, we see that the end is nigh for the Enemies of God. We see that one day the wrong shall fail and the right prevail. We see that Good will conquer Evil. We see that God’s way will became the Way. And through Christ’s work and love for us, we will be invited into God’s Kingdom forever.

So, since Michaelmas is tied to the Equinox which happened last week, may we always remember as the days darken, that there is a light of hope for us. There is Good News and it has a Messenger. When the days get dark, and thoughts go along with them, may your angels constantly remind you of the love of God and the promise of his Kingdom. And may you be like Michael, always delivering the message that his name points us toward. You see, his name is the message, “Who is like unto God?” If we stay looking at Michael, instead of the God he is pointing us to we have missed the his point entirely. Amen

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Year A St Matthew 2017 What to Do with a Tax Collector

Year A St Matthew’s Feast (Observed), 20 September 2017
St James the Less, Ashland, VA
“What to Do with a Tax Collector?”

Matthew 9:9-13
As Jesus was walking along, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth; and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he got up and followed him. And as he sat at dinner in the house, many tax collectors and sinners came and were sitting with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” But when he heard this, he said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.”

Today we pause to remember St Matthew. Gospel writer and reformed tax collector. Scholars might argue on whether the Gospeler and the apostle were the same person, but even if not penned from his hand, a community around him probably was responsible for this version of Christ’s story. According to tradition and the name, at least. The Gospel of Matthew holds a unique slant towards Jewish believers in the early church, looking at the fulfillment of prophecies in the Hebrew Scriptures and lineages holding Jesus in the Davidic line. The modern controversy over authorship is nothing compared to the controversy over who he was.

Now we might not like taxes, but we do not hate tax collectors. I say that now, but I have never been audited. That aside, in Jesus day, to become a tax collector cost a small fortune. One had to bribe the Romans, a foreign invading army, for the privilege of stealing from their friends in neighbors. Now taxes are taxes, not stealing, but the collectors had to recoup their expenses on the bribes to get the job. So they would steal double and more over what was supposed to be levied. Remember Zacchaeus, the wee little man, who promised to repay all that he stole as a tax collector? The term is mentioned just over 20 times in the Gospels, and it is often naming them a sinner or a particular person. They were seen as traitors, Roman collaborators, and thieves rolled into one. They were despised.

In fact, one of the many accusations against Jesus is that he spent time with sinners and tax collectors, even eating with them. Ptuh! [fake spit]

That is why we get the job of Matthew even mentioned. Who was this Jesus? Someone who had a bad reputation because he hung out with the wrong crowd. So often in Scripture we hear the phrase “sinners and tax collectors” used together that we immediately think bad, even though the Gospels meant to fight that. They were intentional in including that Matthew was a tax collector because it was so scandalous. Scandalous, and an obvious sign that something special was going on. We call the Grace.

In our lectionary reading two Sundays back, you may have even thought that. If someone in the Church sins, we are supposed to lovingly confront them and hold them accountable, and if they do not listen, we take another or a couple with us to help clear the air. If that does not work, we bring it to the Church. [Matthew 18]“...if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” Now a Gentile was a non-Jew, remember Matthew’s Jewish orientation. Now at the outset, it may seem that Jesus is saying to ostracize them. But how did Jesus treat tax collectors?

He broke bread with them. He loved them. And like with Matthew in today’s reading: “As Jesus was walking along, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth; and he said to him, ‘Follow me.’ And he got up and followed him.” Jesus invites him in, and welcomes him. He gives him extra Grace. When we have difficulty with someone who is not living up to the high calling of Jesus, maybe that is what we are to do as well. LOVE THEM ALL THE MORE, INVITE THEM INTO A DEEPER RELATIONSHIP, AND PERHAPS, THEY WILL FOLLOW JESUS. Just like St Matthew.

As we bump into the Matthews in our lives, may we always remember this. Even the greatest of sinners, whatever the sin, could become a mighty proclaimer of the Gospel. Amen.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Year A Proper 19 2017 A Gazillion-Million-Billion (Plus One)

Year A Proper 19 2017
17 September 2017, 8 & 10 am
St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA
“A Gazillion-Million-Billion (Plus One)”

O God, because without you we are not able to please you, mercifully grant that your Holy Spirit may in all things direct and rule our hearts; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

Romans 14:1-12
Welcome those who are weak in faith, but not for the purpose of quarreling over opinions. Some believe in eating anything, while the weak eat only vegetables. Those who eat must not despise those who abstain, and those who abstain must not pass judgment on those who eat; for God has welcomed them. Who are you to pass judgment on servants of another? It is before their own lord that they stand or fall. And they will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make them stand.
Some judge one day to be better than another, while others judge all days to be alike. Let all be fully convinced in their own minds. Those who observe the day, observe it in honor of the Lord. Also those who eat, eat in honor of the Lord, since they give thanks to God; while those who abstain, abstain in honor of the Lord and give thanks to God.
We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord's. For to this end Christ died and lived again, so that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living.
Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister? Or you, why do you despise your brother or sister? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God. For it is written,
"As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me,
and every tongue shall give praise to God."
So then, each of us will be accountable to God.

Matthew 18:21-35
Peter came and said to Jesus, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.
“For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’ Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

When was the last time you had to forgive someone? I mean really forgive someone. When was the last situation where someone chose to do wrong by you. It was intentional and deliberate. It may have even been done with malice. It may have even been done by a brother or sister in Christ. It hurts. It is infuriating. And, it happens to all of us. And the only thing we can do is choose how we will respond.

Once in my life I had a fellow minister lie about me, and then they did their best to get me fired. It rattled me. It even rattled my faith. How could someone who was in Christ, and who preached about and prayed to the same God I do do something so despicable? I questioned everything. That is what sin does, it creates Ripples of Effect. And those effects take a toll. Even rocks wear down after a constant battering of the waves.

I think that is why Jesus was so serious about forgiveness. We all need it; and, we all need to be able to give it, especially those of us in the Church.

Last week’s reading looked at dealing with our sisters and brothers when they sin against us. How to lovingly confront them and hold them accountable for their actions. That handles the action, but today we deal with the harder part, the emotions, the dark, sticky, troublesome emotions of anger, and maybe even hate. Today, we read Peter asking about forgiveness. “How often should we forgive someone in the Church? 7 times?”

Now in the midrash, the Jewish commentaries on the Scriptures, the suggested number of times to forgive was three. So even in Peter’s response, he was hedging his bets by doubling the amount and adding one for good measure. But Jesus basically says, keep forgiving until it is forgiven. It may take three times, or seven, or seventy times seven. That’s 490 for those trying to do the math. Jesus needs us to be more than a people forgiven. He calls us to be a forgiving people.

In a few minutes after the prayers, we even include a time in our liturgy when we give opportunity for forgiveness. Twice actually. After the Prayer of Confession, I will pronounce God’s pardon. That is when we celebrate that we live in Grace, living in God’s forgiveness of our sins. But just as important, and one you may have missed is the Passing of the Peace. Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount: (Matthew 5) “23 So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24 leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.” So, before you come to this altar, not only do you need to accept and in live in the Grace that Christ offers, but also live by the Grace that was extended to you by giving it to your brothers and sisters in Christ.

That is what St. Paul was getting at in the today’s Romans reading. We are not asked to be doctrinal or ethical cops for one another. Opinions are going to be different. There is a reason that there is a vanilla, and a chocolate, and a mint chip, too! There is a reason that there are Methodists, and Presbyterians, and Baptists, and, yes, even Episcopalians, thanks be to God! It is okay to disagree, but as Paul urges us, it is not okay to be disagreeable.

Look at your own life, long before you need to get to the whole forgiveness conversation, and we will be getting back to that, but look at your own life and when relationships break down the canary in the coal mine is when we stop giving each other the BENEFIT of the DOUBT. When trust first begins to slide, we start to question others’ choices, then ethics, then personhood. It is a slippery slope. If we distrust our sister or our brother, we have stopped giving them the benefit of the doubt. We see dark intentions even if none were meant. And to regain relationship, we may need to talk, we may need to bring in an outside negotiator, we may need to take a break from one another, but we do it all in the name of UNITY, in the name of the CHURCH, and most importantly in the name of CHRIST. If we say we are in Christ, and do not get along with each other then we are wrong at best, or liars at worst.

So, as I begin my work with you, I will ask a favor, when I upset you, and I will (notice I said when not if), please do me a favor and pause and give me the benefit of the doubt. And then come and talk with me, and you have my promise that I will attempt to do the same with you. I ask that we can do this together, and that we can do it with each other.

In this confusing and divided time our country finds itself in, people need to see the Church as a beacon of hope, faith, and unity. But too often, we let the world’s troubles and troublesome nature slip in. WE DO NOT HAVE THE LUXURY OR THE PRIVILEGE OF HOLDING A GRUDGE. WE MUST BE A FORGIVING PEOPLE.

And how do you get past it when you have something hanging over the head of a brother or sister, take a step today towards forgiveness. Maybe that is praying about it. Maybe that is going directly to them at the passing of the peace, and pledging love for each other as sisters and brothers in Christ. Maybe it is asking me to go and get coffee with you and someone else. Whatever it is, take a step which will begin rebuilding trust, which begins leading to the benefit of the doubt, which leads to full relationship. As Jesus says (John 13:35 paraphrased), “The world will know you are my disciples by your love for one another.” Not your doctrinal purity, or your denomination, or your right & proper Whatever. If we say we love God, but cannot stand each other, then we have missed the boat.

And starting with the benefit of the doubt, let’s get to forgiveness. Jesus told St. Peter to keep on forgiving as long as we need to do so. And that is when he tells the story. A story so hysterical that people made sure that it was written down. We love the story of Jesus here, the plays of Molière, and the skits on Saturday Night Live. Hypocrisy is always funny, unless we happen to be the hypocrites.

The debtor in our story owes his Master a staggering amount of money. In today’s terms, a talent was worth 15 years of minimum wage. And he owed 10,000 talents. Now all of Judea only owed the Roman government 600 talents a year in taxes, so this unbelievable amount is the same as Jesus saying the the slave owed a gazillion-million-billion dollars. The amount is more than all the money, and land, and property in the whole country was worth. And the Master forgives it. But the slave, feeling all good, and now better than everybody else with this stroke of unimaginable Grace, he is not gracious with a fellow slave that owes him 100 days wage. Remember, 150,000 years versus 3 months and change. This is a lot like the squabbles that come up when they come up in the Church. We have been forgiven a gazillion-million-billion times for our sins, and yet we hold a fault against our brothers or sisters. But beloved, as St. Paul said, “Each of us will be accountable to God.” No matter what is the cause of division, nothing is worth the strife to Christ’s church.
“He said this!” And, “She said that!”

“They lied!” Or, “They did not tell us everything.”

“The paint should be blue!” Or, “The flowers should be pink!”

Whatever the differences are, brothers and sisters in Christ, for God’s sake, and that is not a curse but an honest plea, for God’s sake, let us love one another. “For love is of God, and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. The one who does not love, does not know God, for God is love.” (I John 4:7-8)

That minister who wronged me is still someone I pray for when I think of them. I pray for God to grow in their life. I pray for Grace for them. I pray for God to bless them. (That one was hard to start doing.) I have run into them three times in the decade plus since they wronged me. The first time, they crossed the room and got in my face to gloat and make sure I saw them. I got a sinking feeling in my stomach and walked away. A few years later, I felt someone looking at me, and it took me a while to figure out who they were. They did not approach me, and they looked away when they saw I had noticed them. But I still did not connect with them, and they did not with me. I saw them in a store about a year ago. They made eye contact, about ten aisles away, and I readied myself to talk with them. But they ducked down an aisle and I could not find them. They were hiding from me now. When I feel myself starting down the road of resentment or bitterness, I still stop and ask God to bless them and grow in their lives, and I trust that if God wants it we might still be able to reconcile on this side of heaven. I would say I am probably at about number 438 of 490 times of forgiving them. And I hope I can continue when the times come that I need to do so. We are called not only to live in forgiveness, but by forgiveness. And good Lord willing, I can continue to grow and get there. That is my prayer for all of us.

I thank God in my prayers that he has blessed me and my family with the opportunity to come and be your priest. This first week, already, has been a great gift, and I feel that the days ahead will be bright and God will be glorified. As we heal, and grow, and give each other the benefit of the doubt, we will make a difference in this town, this county, this beloved Commonwealth, and in our world. Division and strife comes from the Enemy; harmony and abundant life comes from God. If I can help any of you, and I mean this, if I can help any of you reconcile with one another or with God, please let me know. I am your priest, and that is what priests do. There is nothing more important to me.

As we come to Christ’s table we will pray the most dangerous prayer in all of Scripture, and I trust, as your priest that you mean the words that you will say. The most dangerous prayer? “Forgive us our trespasses, just like we forgive those who trespass against us.” If God ever took us up on that, we really would be in trouble. Thankfully God gives us the benefit of the doubt, but even then, God loves us and will forgive us even a gazillion-million-billion-and-one times if needed. That is Grace. That is us being a forgiven and a forgiving people. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Year A Holy Cross 2017 Even Death On A Cross

Year A Holy Cross (Observed)
13 September 2017, 7:30 am
St James the Less, Ashland, VA
“Even Death on a Cross”

This holy remembrance day, if you think about it, is an oxymoron. Our hearing has become calcified after millenia. We no longer hear the scandal. Our crosses are pretty. Our shock and horror has ceased.

One of the earliest mentions of Jesus outside the scriptures was found as a graffiti mocking a believer named “Alexamenos worships his God.” Notice that the “God” is donkey-headed, and if Alexamenos worshiped an ass, what does that make him? What does that make us?

And yet, from this side of faith, we see it very differently. What was once scandalous is now beloved. What was once an instrument of death, is now a means to deliverance.

What is the most quoted Bible verse do you think? The one I see a lot, is John 3:16. Often there is a poster in an endzone now that we are in football season. And John 3:16  is so often taken out of context. But in his conversation with Nicodemus, Jesus starts by making a beautiful analogy.

Here is John 3, from verse 14 to 17, so we see that well known verse in context of what Jesus was saying.
14 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. 16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. 17 “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.
The children of Israel in their desert wandering were being bitten, so in Numbers 21:8-9, the solution was a bronze snake lifted up on a pole. The snake that Moses lifted up was death incarnate, and as people were bitten, they would look to this symbol of death and be saved. The cross, this Holy Cross, is the same. As we look to it, in its shock and horror, in its scandal, we see the extent of love that Jesus had for us.

As we remember that love today, hear again the words of St. Paul who was quoting an ancient hymn of the Church:
5 Let 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.
9 Therefore God also highly exalted him
   and gave him the name
   that is above every name,
10 so that at the name of Jesus
   every knee should bend,
   in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue should confess
   that Jesus Christ is Lord,
   to the glory of God the Father.

We remember Jesus’ love today, as we remember his sacrifice. Often during the service, you we see me give a slight bow at the name of Jesus, and it goes back to this hymn, and it comes from this great idea that this symbol of death is still saving us today. Amen.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

The Center of the Universe

On September 10, I officially began my work as the Priest-in-Charge to the Episcopal parish in Ashland, Virginia. St. James the Less is a 150 year old congregation that has a long and storied history, a passion for helping their community, and like most congregations, it is asking how can we be faithful followers of Christ in our time.

A lot of friends have asked about Priest-in-Charge (PiC) as opposed to Rector, the more traditional term. A PiC is a halfway role, between an Interim and a Rector. It is a quick move-in, which is what the parish and I wanted foregoing a long search process, and it comes with an end date. There is a three-year contract, but unlike an Interim, it can be "converted" (Yes, that is the term) to the Rector if all parties are in agreement. That can happen as soon as 18 months. We will see, prayerfully and hopefully.

There has been some frustration and animosity within the parish, and hopefully I can bring some stability and hope as I move into my new role. St. James the Less is not alone with anxiety and troubles. I have been laid off from two congregations in a year. This is a time of major transition and change within, and without, the Church. With our divisive and angst-filled days, we would be silly to think that there would not be a spillover into our faith communities. But this requires more faith, not less, on our parts. There is no longer an assumption that Church is something you do, so those that are left, the "righteous remnant" to use a term I learned in my study of the Hebrew Scriptures, are choosing to be there. That gives me hope. Church is hopefully not an activity, but a true expression of the faithful, maybe even the Body of Christ.

This blog has been called doubtnotstt from my first years as a priest at St. Thomas' in Richmond, and so I needed to change its title. There is a sense of civic pride in Ashland which as best as I can remember came from a joke bumper sticker, which said something like Welcome to Ashland, the Center of the Universe. The name stuck. There is even a Center of the Universe Brewery (COTU). So, humbly and with tongue firmly in cheek, I am very pleased to announce that I am the Priest to the Center of the Universe. Hence the new blog name, and I could not be more excited about all that is to come. Soli Deo Gloria!