Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Year B Proper 7 WED Not Karma, Grace

Year B Proper 7 WEDNESDAY, 27 June 2018 
St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA 
“Not Karma, Grace” 
Collect: O Lord, make us have perpetual love and reverence for your holy Name, for you never fail to help and govern those whom you have set upon the sure foundation of your loving kindness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. 

Matthew 20:1-16 ‘For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire labourers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the labourers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard... 

Wrestling with Grace. We always have and we always will. For many of us, that little voice of “Not Fair!” or “They Don’t Deserve That!” rears its ugly head. It comes out of the best of us, and it is so insipid.  

In Jesus’ parable, those who were laboring in the Vineyard all day thought that because of the Owner’s generosity that would get incrementally more, even though the contracted wage was what it was. The calculations involved make sense in the world we find ourselves in, but in the calculations of the Kingdom of God things are different. The Economics of the Kingdom are about the Process more than the Outcome.  

When I am with my daughters, and they are making something, I am with them, doing it, not because of what they will produce. I am with them to be with them. Play is the work of children. It teaches discipline, stick-to-it-tiveness, resilience, persistence, and joy in accomplishment. As they get older, they create things worth keeping. But if you had children, think of how often your fridge is covered in some work of art or another. We cover our fridges because of love, not the stick figure that looks like it might be a dog. But as they grow and develop, that work, and those creations are more about the outcome than being together. And I think that is where the shift happens. When we begin to think about the bottom line, and listening to that dreaded station: WII-FM (What’s In It For Me?) 

The people in the Vineyard were working, and somewhere along the way it became a drudgery and not a privilege. When we are working in the Kingdom, we are invited into Holy and Wonderful work. It is precious and wonderful. But, it is still work. We do it out of love, not out of duty. When it becomes an obligation we need to rethink, recommit, re-envision. We may have to stop, and let someone else do it if it is not done out of love. 
Our faith is not built on doing enough good to get a reward. That is karma, getting what we deserve. We teach and preach Grace, a wonderful, surprising, undeserved gift. And that is what Jesus is trying to show us, again and again and again. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, “...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; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.” (Matthew 5:44-45) 

In the story, everyone got what they were supposed to get, what they promised that they were getting. “Are you envious because I am generous?” the Owner asks. Sometimes we are. We forget that God is a God of Abundance. We do not follow a tit-for-tat God, where the Universe is some Zero Sum game. We follow a God in whom “we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28).  

In our Journey, we find that the Destination is not the Reward, the Journey is. My favorite quote, you have heard it before and you will hear it again. “We are put on earth but a little space to learn to bear the beams of Love.” -William Blake And part of that is a revamping of how we see things, and how we see our part in it. 

Are we here to be good enough to get our reward, heaven? That is Karma. And if the outcome was all that was important, if that is the case, then God could have snapped celestial fingers and granted our wish like some cosmic fairy godfather. But God is wanting us to be in on the adventure, and invites us to be friends and colaborers. What a privilege! What an adventure! “We are put on earth but a little space, to learn to bear the beams of Love.” Amen. 

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Year B Proper 6 2018 God Finds A Way

Year B Proper 6, 17 June 2018 (Father’s Day)
St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA
“God Finds A Way”

Collect: Keep, O Lord, your household the Church in your steadfast faith and love, that through your grace we may proclaim your truth with boldness, and minister your justice with compassion; for the sake of our Savior Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

1 Samuel 15:34-16:13
Samuel went to Ramah; and Saul went up to his house in Gibeah of Saul. Samuel did not see Saul again until the day of his death, but Samuel grieved over Saul. And the Lord was sorry that he had made Saul king over Israel.
The Lord said to Samuel, “How long will you grieve over Saul? I have rejected him from being king over Israel. Fill your horn with oil and set out; I will send you to Jesse the Bethlehemite, for I have provided for myself a king among his sons.” Samuel said, “How can I go? If Saul hears of it, he will kill me.” And the Lord said, “Take a heifer with you, and say, ‘I have come to sacrifice to the Lord.’ Invite Jesse to the sacrifice, and I will show you what you shall do; and you shall anoint for me the one whom I name to you.” Samuel did what the Lord commanded, and came to Bethlehem. The elders of the city came to meet him trembling, and said, “Do you come peaceably?” He said, “Peaceably; I have come to sacrifice to the Lord; sanctify yourselves and come with me to the sacrifice.” And he sanctified Jesse and his sons and invited them to the sacrifice.
When they came, he looked on Eliab and thought, “Surely the Lord’s anointed is now before the Lord.” But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” Then Jesse called Abinadab, and made him pass before Samuel. He said, “Neither has the Lord chosen this one.” Then Jesse made Shammah pass by. And he said, “Neither has the Lord chosen this one.” Jesse made seven of his sons pass before Samuel, and Samuel said to Jesse, “The Lord has not chosen any of these.” Samuel said to Jesse, “Are all your sons here?” And he said, “There remains yet the youngest, but he is keeping the sheep.” And Samuel said to Jesse, “Send and bring him; for we will not sit down until he comes here.” He sent and brought him in. Now he was ruddy, and had beautiful eyes, and was handsome. The Lord said, “Rise and anoint him; for this is the one.” Then Samuel took the horn of oil, and anointed him in the presence of his brothers; and the spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward. Samuel then set out and went to Ramah.

Mark 4:26-34
Jesus said, “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.”
He also said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”
With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.

The Gospel this morning is about faith. Scattering what little we have in hopes that God will bless it and make it grow. Anytime we take a risk it is an act of faith. And I trust that any risks I take this morning will spring up in you. It is an act of faith.

We have two images of the Kingdom of God. A farmer taking the precious resource of seed, and casting it out and trusting in the Almighty to keep on doing what only God can do: take our gift and help it grow. We do not know how. We do not have the details, or did not when the Gospels were written; it just worked.

The other image given is the mustard seed. Something so small. Jesus using first century hyperbole calls it the smallest of seeds, yet in God’s way of doing things, it expands, grows, and gives food and branches for nests, a home from something so small.

Faith is a funny thing. So easy for some. So hard for others. We drive down the interstate going at breakneck speeds, literally breakneck speeds, and we trust that the cars and trucks will stay in their lane, and drive in a way that will keep us all safe. And then with people we know, may have known for years, at times we do not extend the same benefit of the doubt.

The prophet Samuel was asked to have faith. Despite his warnings we spoke on last week, Saul was made king. But Saul was so despicable, the Spirit of the Lord left him and Samuel was tasked with reaching out to Jesse and getting one of his sons to be secretly anointed as the successor and heir to Saul.

Son after son came before the prophet, until there were no sons left. So small of stature, a dreamer and poet by nature, David was not considered worthy of mention by his own father much less being brought before Samuel as a possible king.

We were told already, though: “...The Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.”

And David appears.  “Now he was ruddy, and had beautiful eyes, and was handsome. The Lord said, ‘Rise and anoint him; for this is the one.’ Then Samuel took the horn of oil, and anointed him in the presence of his brothers; and the spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward.”

Something so small, so slight, a boy among men was given to the Lord, and the Lord took the meager gift, this mustard seed of a boy and raised him up to be the mightiest king in the history of Israel, the one of whom our Savior is said, “of the house and lineage of David.” Something so small, becomes the cornerstone of a whole new world.

God finds a way when we see none. When we have hard years, and have little hope, we take what hope we have and give it up to the Lord. We scatter our seed, and trust that the Lord will make it bountiful. For the Kingdom of God is like that.

The Kingdom of God. What is it like in the Kingdom of God? What should it be like? Have you ever thought about that? Every time I say the Lord’s Prayer, I trip up on the “on earth as it is in heaven.” It’s not. And we have so far to go before it ever will be.

Weeks like this one, when I watch the news, I pray that prayer that Jesus taught us to pray, and he taught us to say these words. “On earth, as it is in heaven.”

“On earth, as it is in heaven.” Last week I spoke of dangerous prayers. This one is dangerous to the status quo. If we pray that and we mean it we cannot let things continue the way they are. We must, as our Collect led us to pray today, “proclaim [God’s] truth with boldness, and minister your justice with compassion.”

Always the English teacher I need to clarify a point for you. In our culture we too often confuse two words. The first word is political. It comes from the Greek word “polis” meaning city. We still use it in Metropolis and Annapolis. So when we say something is political it speaks to how we come together when we are living together in community, and how we need to act and think and govern while we live together.

Jesus was political. He spoke often about how we have to live together.
  • “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
  • “Love your enemy.”
  • “Do good to your enemies.”
  • “Bless those who curse you.”
Jesus set a pretty high political standard, asking those who follow him and live in his name to do things that are VERY HARD and NIGH IMPOSSIBLE it seems in the mean world we are living in today.

Political: from living in the city, how we live together, how we think and act and govern. Now the word Political has come to mean the second word, even in the dictionary if you look it up when you get home, but that was not the origin.

The second word, the one we should use instead of Political and we confuse that with is Partisan. Pertaining to a party or ideology. And this is what always should be avoided from the pulpit and our church discourse. Think about it, partisan’s root is from “part,” to divide or separate. Partisan things INTEND TO DIVIDE and SEPARATE.

Political: how we are going to act and live and govern together.
Partisan: how we engage our division’s agenda.

Jesus said to consider “the Least of These.” It was his injunction and mandate. Prophets throughout Scripture call us to consider the “widow and orphan and stranger in your midst.” We are called to remember them and care for them as one of our own, for that is what God would have us do and demands it of us.

We do it with our clinic in the basement. Thanks be to God. We do it with our feeding program. Thanks be to God. I think we need to scatter those same seeds of faith in all we say and do.

This week in particular I looked on in horror as children were stripped from their parents, and it goes on. They did this on my border. They did this on your border. They did this in our name. The United Nations Human Rights Commission have condemned the use of this policy. Now we can disagree on our immigration policy, but the deliberate removal of children from their parents is unspeakable and inhumane. “Consider the least of these,” and a two year old with arms outstretched or a nursing child on a lap, it is hard to get more “least of these” than that.
When the Attorney General of our country, a confessed Christian, quotes St. Paul to justify these actions which so blatantly go against the letter and spirit of our Scriptures, something is terribly wrong. And I do not know a way out of it.

Most every major denomination in our country has condemned these actions, including our own. Our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry said, and I quote:
For those of us who follow Jesus, his teachings are the final authority and Jesus said, “love your neighbor as yourself,” (Matthew 22:39) that “those who welcome the stranger have welcomed the Lord himself and are therefore blessed,” (Matthew 25:35) and “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” (Matthew 7:12). And that’s just in Matthew’s gospel!

For those of us who are American, the words emblazoned on the Statue of Liberty define who we are — “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” That’s America. A shining city on a hill.

It is not the Christian way and it is not the American way to separate children from their parents at the borders of this country.
(Presiding Bishop Michael B. Curry Facebook Page, 15 June 2018, 6:16 p.m.)

The Southern Baptists and the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, who are not liberal in any way, condemn this policy. I do not see a way out of it. And I do not know what I can do. But I do know that we look at the outward, and God looks at our heart. Just like with David. And God still can find a way.

God can find a way out of this partisan quagmire we find ourselves in. God can find a way to safety and security for those fleeing to our nation for the hope we have promised for so long, especially to “the least of these.”

I have to trust that the ways of the Kingdom of God have not changed. I will scatter my seed of faith today by naming the wrong to be just that. You may call someone who has influence or sway. You may treat a stranger with love and care, just like you are doing it to and for Christ. And all these seeds, as we scatter them and entrust them to God I believe will come to fruition.

When I see the overwhelming nature of the world we are living in I feel so small and powerless. But the same St. Paul that the Attorney General quoted out of context said this (2 Corinthians 12:9-10) as well:
...God said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.

And in that same faith, weak as I am but leaning on Christ’s Grace-upon-Grace (John 1:16), Christ’s grace is sufficient for me, and it is for you. And like the Mustard Seed, or the boy with the loaves and fishes, if we give all we have to God, that will be enough. We have everything we need already, we just may not see it or comprehend it. When Israel needed a new king, God had already raised up his David. We already have everything we need. It is especially true when days are dark and hard, as it is in our country right now, and in our parish when we have tragedies like the ones this week.

I have faith that this can and will change. Some days that faith is as small as a mustard seed, but it is there. And in faith I toss it out, for the Kingdom of God is like this… Amen.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Year B Proper 5 2018 Dangerous Prayers

Year B Proper 5, 10 June 2018 
St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA 
“Dangerous Prayers” 

1 Samuel 8:4-11, 16-20 
Mark 3:20-35 The crowd came together again, so that Jesus and his disciples could not even eat. When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, “He has gone out of his mind.” And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, “He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.” And he called them to him, and spoke to them in parables, “How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come. But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered.  “Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin”— for they had said, “He has an unclean spirit.”  Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him. A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.” And he replied, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”  Not sure why my mind has wandered here with this morning’s readings, but it has. God laid this on my heart for this morning, and I pray it speaks to you. 

That word choice is intentional, because it is about prayer that I am speaking today. I heard a phrase recently, and that may very well be the catalyst of today’s sermon. “Be careful what you pray for, because God may just give it to you.” 

God loves us, and wants what is best for us. But, if we are hard-hearted and obstinate, God loves us so much that we may get what we ask for instead of what we need.  
The Israelites wanted a king, they wanted to be just like everyone else all around them. They wanted to let go of this loose tribal confederacy that was “judged” instead of “ruled.” Even in their celebrations they asked God to bless what God had already said would be problematic. To the prophet God said, “They have not rejected you, they have rejected me.” It broke God’s heart. But he gave them what they asked for, to everyone’s detriment. 

For years and years, people prayed for and awaited the long-promised Messiah. Mary even “held all these things in her heart” about who he was. But what they prayed for and what showed up were in conflict. Jesus’ own mother and brothers thought he was crazy, or that he might be. And the religious scholars who claimed that they knew something about God said that he was from Satan.   
The crowd came together again, so that Jesus and his disciples could not even eat. When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, “He has gone out of his mind.” And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, “He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.” 
After so many hundreds of years of praying for the Messiah, they would not know him if he were a snake that jumped up and bit them.  

Praying is a dangerous, but necessary, part of our spiritual life. We do not realize that our prayers may be the most potent thing we can do. 

In working with people on communication skills, there is a back and forth that often takes place.  

One person says something, and the listener is asked to say back what they heard. Often this is where the breakdown happens. What is parroted back is incomplete, wrong, or containing things that were not said. Prayer is like that. It is a way for us to interact with God and say what it is we are hearing. In the communication workshops, it can be immediately resolved. But it is not that way in our prayer life. We may put out what we think we heard, but it is in living out our life where we can see evidence of our misunderstanding. 

I think today’s lessons teach us a few things: 
  1. Pray. Just pray. God wants us to share what is on our hearts and minds. 
  2. When you pray, be honest with God. If you want a bright shiny red bike, ask for it. And then God will work it so that your blue bike is fine, and give you ways to help you see it. Or, maybe it is time for a new bike, and that will be revealed. 
  3. When you pray, expect God to answer. I have heard God answer in three ways: 
    1. Yes. 
    2. No. 
    3. Not yet. 
  4. When we pray and get an answer, we have to be open to God’s answer. We may not get what we want, but we can be assured that we will get what we need if we go with God’s answer. 
Think on prayer this way. It is an open and honest discussion with God. We are like a toddler and God is like a parent. Sometimes we just rattle on and on without letting God get a word in edgewise. Sometimes we ask for something we say we want, but we should not get, like an ice cream before dinner. Nothing is wrong with ice cream. It is about timing, and size, and need. Before dinner, No. After dinner, maybe some. 

The Israelites asked and asked for a king. God knew better. God also knew that God would need to be there to help pick up the pieces. That is what love does. God loves us at our best and at our worst. Prayer is how we interact and share in this relationship. 

Prayer is an invitation by God to step up and give a higher perspective to us. “Not my will, but thine.” Jesus said it, and we can and do at times. Prayer, too often, is seen as telling God what to do. Nope. God is not Santa Claus where we can take our list and expect it all. Prayer changes us for things, more than it changes things for us. We need to step up and see things from a broader, and grander point of view. Once again, prayer changes us for things, more than it changes things for us. 

The harshness we may hear when Jesus seemingly rejects his family who has come to see what on earth is going on and if the crazy rumors are true. “Who is my family?” Jesus asks.  

Here I think he is actually modeling the line he gives to the man who must go home to bury his father. “Let the dead bury the dead.” Is he saying here that we need to break familial bonds and identification? No. Absolutely not. 

What he is saying here is that our understanding of what it means to be family, in caring, nurturing, supportive relationships needs to be expanded. In the Mark telling of this story, it is not that they come to speak with Jesus, they  come to take him home, “because he is beside himself.” Jesus, you have gone plumb crazy and we have come to bring you home. You have lost it. But Jesus then says, “Those who do the will of God are my mother, and sisters, and brothers.” Mark 3:20-35  In Matthew, the author replaces God (from Mark) with “my Father in heaven.” He is claiming his first identity as a child of God before he is a child of Mary or Joseph. When I do wedding ceremonies, I tell the bride and groom that they are now each other’s highest earthly priority. And I truly believe that. I also believe when Jesus said, “Seek first God’s kingdom and his okaying of you, and everything else will fall into place.” (Glenn Hinson paraphrase, a seminary professor I had.)  To be the best husband and father and priest and me, I need to put God first. And then “my cup runneth over, ...and surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.” But Rock, you may be asking, he sounds so rude to his family. And that is why they made sure that they wrote this down. It went head to head with cultural expectations, and in so doing it reframed the conversation. Who are my family, the ones I care for and take care of? The ones who seek out and do God’s will. Those, those are my family.   But think on it, one of his last breaths was used to tell the beloved disciple to behold his mother. Even from the cross he made sure that his family responsibilities were taken care of. Jesus is framing the question into one from a higher level. That is what he came to do, and enable us to do.  

In our prayers, may we truly move beyond the infantile, “Gimmeegimmeegimmee.” May we step up to a higher level, and see that what God wants and what we want can and should actually align. That is what Jesus is going for, and it can be our aim. When you pray, be careful what you pray for, you just may get it. Amen