Wednesday, December 25, 2019

Year A Christmas Day 2019 Traditions 2019

Year A Christmas Day 2019
St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA
“Traditions 2019”

Collect: Almighty God, you have given your only-begotten Son to take our nature upon him, and to be born [this day] of a pure virgin: Grant that we, who have been born again and made your children by adoption and grace, may daily be renewed by your Holy Spirit; through our Lord Jesus Christ, to whom with you and the same Spirit be honor and glory, now and for ever. Amen.

John 1:1-14
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.

He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.

And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father's only son, full of grace and truth.

We all have them. We might not see them as Traditions, but we do things in the same way for comfort, for ease, for our brains to go on automatic pilot at times. We also carve out space in our days or seasons to do things with intention. Christmas is filled with Traditions, and that means Christmas is filled with Intention.  


Last night we got in late and I just caught one of my traditions, the Midnight Mass from the Vatican was just finishing up. 

Some of our family’s traditions are extra special. Stephanie and I were married on the 19th, so on our honeymoon we began to read the three Gospel accounts of Christmas from Luke, then Matthew, the John. And then we read the Gospel according to Dr. Seuss. The Grinch is Gospel, as there is a conversion when his heart “grew three sizes that day.” 
We got to read those together last night in the Rectory. Another Tradition Ritual we missed, the eating of Chinese Food which comes from my birth family who always went to the Chinese restaurant after the Christmas Eve service. There was no open Chinese nearby. I will have to find one for next year.

Traditions warm our hearts. Traditions make us comfy inside. 

Another one of my traditions is to usually cry, whether I want to or not, when I hear, “I Heard The Bells On Christmas Day.” The song comes from a poem by Longfellow. A simple song, a throwaway song almost until you hear the words with Longfellow’s thoughts in your mind. Two years after his wife died in a tragic accident, which also left him permanently scarred, Longfellow’s son enlisted in the Union Army in the Civil War. Receiving a grave wound, Charley, Longfellow’s son was in hospital in Washington, D.C. Longfellow joined him there to help in his recovery. On Christmas Day, in the midst of personal tragedy and in a beloved country ripping itself apart, he penned these words.  
I heard the bells on Christmas Day Their old, familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet,  the words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men! 
 
And thought how, as the day had come, The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along the unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
 
Till ringing, singing on its way, The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime, a chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good-will to men! 
 
And in despair I bowed my head; "There is no peace on earth," I said;
“For hate is strong, and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!"
 
Then pealed the bells more loud and deep: "God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail, the Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men." 
And that poem became a song when we are tired and beaten by a world that ignores the message of Hope and Love we share at Christmas. One cannot be cynical and call oneself a disciple of Christ. It is as hypocritical as the bigot, the sexist, the blatant sinner. Cynicism is a sin of the heart. And this song reminds us of that. 

This year, I look to the Christ Child in hope, and in trust. Our dear friend the Reverend Robert Dilday passed away on Saturday night, just one week after he was ordained to the priesthood. A priest for a week. It is heartbreaking. It was so much work to enable him to his work for so little time. He was a friend when we were both Baptists, and then an intern here, preaching from that very pulpit. As senseless as this seems, I cannot look at it in fear. I cannot look at in doubt. I have to look at it that even in its senselessness God will be glorified. God is glorified. Or as Longfellow put it, “God is not dead, nor does he sleep.” I have to live my life in that hope, because of Christmas day. I know Robert+ did.

Speaking of Hope, one of my favorite Christmas traditions is Charlie Brown’s Christmas Special.  

I heard an interesting piece of trivia, and I have shared it the last few years. I am shocked I had never noticed it before. You see, Linus stops the production of the Christmas show rehearsal to tell Charlie Brown the real meaning of Christmas, and he quotes Luke 2. 

8 And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field , keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 And, lo , the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid . 10 And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold , I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. 11 For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. 12 And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes , lying in a manger. 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying , 14 Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men. 

“That’s the meaning of Christmas, Charlie Brown.” Linus, being a cartoon character, is defined in simple ways. He is a believer, trusting or naive, depending on your point of view. He also is comforted by his security blanket and sucking his thumb. He holds tight to his protection from his insecurities, and most of us cannot think of Linus without it. 

But if you go back to watch the video, and I did to make sure a couple of times, while he is quoting Luke, a most amazing thing happens. As soon as he says “Fear not!” his hand disappears from the screen and it returns without the blanket. The boy who is so timid, so fearful, goes center stage and let’s go of his fears, or at least his comfort from his fears. His “security” dropped at his feet. You see, the one who can stand with Linus, the one who can stand beside Longfellow in his pain and grief, the one who can stand beside me in my weakness and insecurities and you in yours has come into the world. “Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.”  

Maybe that is the greatest Christmas Tradition of them all, and it started with Mary, then Joseph, then the Shepherds all the way down to us. Our friend Robert preached it [pointing] from that very pulpit, he believed it, and he lived it to the very end. The words of the angels come to us today, “Fear Not.” And that my friends, is a Tradition to keep. “Fear Not!” Amen

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Year A Christmas Eve 10:30 Candlelight 2019 A Crèche In You

Year A Christmas Eve 10:30 pm 24 December 2019
St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA
“A Crèche In You” 

Collect: O God, you have caused this holy night to shine with the brightness of the true Light: Grant that we, who have known the mystery of that Light on earth, may also enjoy him perfectly in heaven; where with you and the Holy Spirit he lives and reigns, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.
Christmas II readings:
Isaiah 62:6-12
Titus 3:4-7
Luke 2:1-20
In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid; for see-- I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger." And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,
"Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favors!"
When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, "Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us." So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

I pray I never get too old for Christmas. The wistfulness of hearing Bing Crosby sing I’ll Be Home for Christmas. The joy of opening a present given with love. The greater joy of watching someone open a gift you know they’ll love. May none of us never be too grown up to search the skies on Christmas Eve, whether for Santa, for a Star, or for bands of Angels. I hope we never lose the wonder of imagining what it was like on that night so long ago. 

The pondering is something that may be familiar to us, but in recent years there have been a lot of things that have pointed to the fact that Christmas, as we know it, is a recent invention. The movie The Man Who Invented Christmas is not about the baby in a manger, but rather Charles Dickens and how he took a relatively minor Christian feast and made it a day of celebration with a whole commercial season tagged onto it. Before there was Yuletide, a pagan tradition, focusing more on the shortened days and the solstice.

The Church had tied itself to these pre-Christian rites, Latin or Germanic, saying that the light they were celebrating was the true light, the Christ who came into the world. As we prayed in the Collect: “O God, you have caused this holy night to shine with the brightness of the true Light: Grant that we, who have known the mystery of that Light on earth, may also enjoy him perfectly in heaven…” In the dark of this night, wintry cold, we look to a crackling fire for warmth and strength. We pray for light in these shortened days.

And again we are reminded that it was a pregnant girl, with a man she probably barely knew,  fulfilling the expectations of society, and maybe not even realizing the checklist of prophecies that they would be fulfilling each step of their journey to Bethlehem, to Egypt, and back to Nazareth. It would be easy to think of it back there, back then. But we come this night, in the quiet cold, to remind ourselves that Jesus’ birth is Here. Jesus’ birth is Now.

St. Francis may not be a big part of your lives. But one thing he did you probably have in your home right now. In 1223, 796 years ago tonight, TONIGHT, mind you, he gathered the townspeople and his followers to come and pray, and sing, and worship at a midnight mass in a little town called Greccio in Italy. Small and inconsequential, Greccio was a lot like Bethlehem. Ignored and on no one’s radar. But what happened almost 800 years ago is right here in our midst. 

St. Francis decided that he wanted to make everyone aware that Jesus is being born to us still, and in his devotion to the Christ Child, the Little Child of Bethlehem he called him, he gathered an ox, a donkey, a young maiden, an older man, and arranged them around a manger. For the first time in recorded history he staged what we would call a Living Nativity. Another word to describe it is a Crèche. We have one here with us tonight. 

This symbol has become ubiquitous, but such a simple thing, it is singular. Before we had stained glass, or pageants, or musicals, or movies, a humble man of God brought together the simple elements to draw us closer to the Living God.

Like the bread and the wine, also simple elements, God blessed it and used it. Now we have millions of nativity sets representing the miracle of God putting on a human suit and moving into the neighborhood.

We have the Angels singing Gloria. We have the Shepherds preaching Good News. We have a tired and jubilant set of parents being barged in on by those most would never invite to the party, any party. And yet, here they are. And by inviting them we see that all are welcomed into this singular moment upon which we see all of human history hanging. This is the Cruxpoint that leads to the Cross. This is the night when all the Universe held its breath to see if Love could be Born, to see if Grace could come True.

And so with the simplicity of a fool, St. Francis called his fellow devotees to lift up this one so tender and mild. And we still do to this day. We sing, “Glory to the newborn king.”

He chose a setting outside a church, a humble place on a grove upon a hilltop, and he invited the villagers of Greccio to bring their torches to a midnight mass. The poverty of the Child, the humbleness of his birth was what St. Francis wanted to portray. He had been to the real Bethlehem in the real Holy Land, and the simplicity and poverty struck him. So different from the deification he had so often seen linked to Jesus. Live animals would provide the sights, the sounds, and yes, the smells of what welcomed the Almighty to our plain of existence. He wanted Simplicity to be honored; he wanted Poverty to be exalted; and, he wanted Humility to be commended. The solemnities of the Mass were done there with all the senses being uplifted, the holy and world met in the birth of this newborn King.

According to St. Bonaventure, “a certain valiant and veracious soldier… affirmed that he beheld an Infant marvellously beautiful, sleeping in the manger, Whom the blessed Father Francis embraced with both his arms, as if he would awake Him from sleep.” The tradition and the story continued slowly until 1291 when the first Franciscan pope, Nicholas IV, put up a Crèche in Rome at the Basilica of St. Mary Major. It has been spread around the world ever since. In cultures where Jesus is not revered, and only acknowledged as a foreign God, a Crèche is not an unfamiliar scene.

And the ones I have seen around the world are as contextual as they can be. I often see Oxen and Donkeys. I have seen Sheep and Camels. In northern Europe, I have seen Moose even. In Africa, I saw there all African Crèches. I have seen pictures of Asian Crèches with elephants, South American Crèches with llamas, and the like. I find it wonderful. For isn’t that how Christ should come to us? Emmanuel? God with us. God one of us. God one with us.

And tonight I would invite you to set up a Crèche in your heart. You need nothing. You already have all you need.

You see, we are all Oxen and Asses. We are smelly and tired. We are looking just to get some rest, and yet, even in this state, we are invited into this scene. We are invited into the story of Grace. We are all the Oxen; we are all the Donkeys.

We are all the Shepherds, recipients of the divine decree that “unto [us] is born this day… a Savior which is Christ the Lord.” Will we leave our livelihood behind and go and see if it could be true? Will we shout with loud hosannas to let all the world know what we have witnessed, what we now know to be true? We are all the Shepherds.

We are all the sheep. Clueless. Drug along. Yet still apart. We would rather be back in our field, eating our grass. But sometimes we find ourselves where we need to be instead of where we want to be. We are all sheep.

We are all Joseph, called to “Fear Not” and play a part in a story that is not our own, or so it would seem from our perspective, but God had other ideas. God has a part that only we can play. We are, all of us, Joseph, too.

And yes, we are even Mary, the mother of God. We all have the option to say or not to God, “Yes, Lord, I believe. I trust. I am yours.” Just a few decades after St. Francis lived, a German theologian, scholar, and mystic, Meister Eckhart penned this.
'We are all meant to be mothers of God. What good is it to me if this eternal birth of the divine Son takes place unceasingly, but does not take place within myself? And, what good is it to me if Mary is full of grace if I am not also full of grace? What good is it to me for the Creator to give birth to his Son if I do not also give birth to him in my time and my culture? This, then, is the fullness of time: When the Son of Man is begotten in us.'
You, yes, you are the Theotokos, the God-Bearer. You are to bear Christ, and let him be born in your heart, in your life, in your times by what you do, what you say, by who you are.

That Crèche that is in us, is an echo of St. Francis’ devotion almost 800 years ago. Take that with you. Make room for Christ to be born in you tonight. May it be seen in our lives that we too, like Francis, embrace this Little Child of Bethlehem. And may the world truly see how we embrace him with all of who we are. Amen.

Year A Christmas Eve 4:30 Family Service 2019 Angels We Have Heard At Wal-Mart

Year A Christmas Eve 4:30 pm 24 December 2019
St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA
“Angels We Have Heard In Wal-Mart”

Collect: O God, you make us glad by the yearly festival of the birth of your only Son Jesus Christ: Grant that we, who joyfully receive him as our Redeemer, may with sure confidence behold him when he comes to be our Judge; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Christmas I readings
Isaiah 9:2-7
Titus 2:11-14
Luke 2:1-20
In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid; for see-- I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger." And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,
"Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favors!"
When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, "Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us." So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

The Angels came around that day. They had been waiting as long as there was Time. When the first dawn was new this day was planned. It is so hard to stay quiet when you have something important to say. It is so hard to stay quiet before jumping up and shouting, “Surprise!” Think of all those angels, the heavenly host, holding their breath for years upon years, centuries over centuries, millenia uncountable. And in the fullness of that Time, the Angels who had been holding their tongues let loose in Song...
[Sing] Gloria, gloria, in excelsis Deo.
Glory to God in the highest. It was beyond belief, and who do you think heard it? Did kings and queens show up to hear the angels sing? No. It wasn’t kings and queens. Did mighty warriors with strong armies show up to hear the singing? No. There were no mighty armies. Who would God pick to hear the news that Good News had come to the earth, that a Savior had come? God chose someone who no one else would ever choose. God chose the people who would have been picked last for any team.

If it was in our country, with the way we do things, it may have been a garbage dump with Angels singing to the workers with the garbage trucks. It may have been at a prison with the people hearing the heavenly voices through the bars of their cells. It may have been in a camp of homeless people huddling together to stay warm. God chose the people who needed to hear Good News the most, and started with them. 

The Shepherds were not bad, but they had a nasty job this time of year. They were “living in the fields, keeping watch over their flocks by night.” This time of year, when Jesus was born, they had to do that to help the ewes, the mommy sheep, give birth to their lambs. It was a messy business, and because of that they were considered “unclean.” But that did not matter to God. God wanted everyone invited to this party, and so the angels started with the last ones any of us would think to ask. 

And when the heavenly choirs let loose the sound they made! It was the greatest sound the human ear could ever hear, the greatest thing they could ever imagine. That is, until they thought about the words they were saying.

You see, it was not about the concert. The newspaper is not about the paper. The newspaper is about the messages inside of it. And the angel’s song was about the news, the Good News of great joy. It was Good News for them. It was Good News for us over 2,000 years later. Jesus, the Messiah is born!

They got so excited, the shepherds ran to see this thing for themselves, and they told everyone they saw the miracle that we call Christmas.

The shepherds were the first ones to hear that the One they had been waiting on for so long had finally shown up. Many had been waiting so long that they had forgotten that they were waiting, and guessed that this was the way life was. And that message that everything was about to change was the Good News.

Angels shared that Good News from God, and their message is still Good News to us over 2000 years later. 

What is it you think an angel looks like? Does an angel always have wings? Does angel always wear white? Does an angel have long flowing hair? Sometimes. That is how we tend to draw them anyway. But I think that angels can come in all shapes and sizes. Mostly they don’t have wings, I don’t think. I think most of the time, God’s messengers look just like most of us.

Last week I saw an angel. Really. No wings. No flowing hair. In fact, she was not too tall, and she had a really short hair cut. She was a worker at a local store. Now do I think she was from heaven? No more than any of us are, because maybe all of us are. 

But she gave me a message that I needed to hear. 

It was early, really early, last Saturday morning. I had run into the store, already late for what I had to get done. And as I wandered looking for the things I needed I got confused looking in the wrong places. I got frustrated. I got mad. Mostly at myself for being late. I had a whole day of stuff I was in charge of, and I did not have time for this. I finally got checked out and because I was in a hurry I was carrying everything and was rushing to get to my car.

Now the woman’s job was to check receipts and to make sure you got everything you paid for and that you did not have anything that you did not pay for. Because I was in a rush I had put my receipt in my wallet because I normally do not get stopped. Maybe it was because I was rushing. I do not know why she asked me to stop. 

So she asked to see my receipt. And I am so sorry for what happened next. I got frustrated and upset. She said they made her ask, and then I said something not nice. I could tell by the look on her face that I had hurt her. But she paused and politely said, “You have a good day.”

I huffed out to the car, and got everything put away in the trunk. And then it struck me what I had done. And that is when God started talking to me. Like he came to the Shepherds, God’s love is for all of us, but especially those that need it most. And someone who has to work early on a Saturday morning probably needs love, not rudeness. And I decided to do something very hard.

I walked back into the store. I did not care that I was late. This was more important. I went back, and my angel there at the doorway saw me coming and she tensed herself waiting for me to be rude again.

But I went up to her and said, “I was just incredibly rude. You did not deserve that. I was frustrated, and not with you, but I took it out on you. I am so sorry. Will you forgive me?”

That actually surprised her. And that is when my angel smiled. She said, “That has never happened before.” She let me know that she did forgive me. And then she hugged me, and kissed my cheek and said, “Merry Christmas.” 

When the angels sang to the Shepherds it was them saying Merry Christmas. Now when I was rude to the woman doing her job, I treated her like she was less than me. And when she chose to be nice, she chose to be MUCH bigger than I was in that moment. She chose to be an angel, especially to someone who was acting like the Least. She chose to share love even to someone like me.

Even priests can make mistakes, big ones sometimes. And when I chose to think less of myself, I found a way to go and act more like Jesus wants us to act. Humbly. Lovingly. Graciously. She gave me Grace and Love, when I did not deserve it. And that is an angelic message if I ever heard one. Jesus came to give the same message that my angel gave me. We are forgiven. We are loved. And that is what Christmas is. Giving love and grace. And when we do that, maybe we are angels, too.
[Sing] Gloria, gloria, in excelsis Deo.
Merry Christmas! Amen.

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Year A Advent 3 2019 Ember Day

Year A Advent 3, 17 December 2019
St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA
“Ember Days”

Collect for all Christians in their vocations:
Almighty and everlasting God, by whose Spirit the whole body of your faithful people is governed and sanctified: Receive our supplications and prayers, which we offer before you for all members of your holy Church, that in their vocation and ministry they may truly and devoutly serve you; through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Today is the first Ember Day for Advent. What is Ember Day? 

I remember when I was first in process, I remember when my presenting priest asked me, “Have you sent in your Ember Day letter?” My response: “What’s that? And what’s Ember Day?” Well, it is mostly something that is the focuse of those seeking ordination, but in the busy-ness of the season, I thought I would touch base with you about some neat parts of the Church calendar.

Here is what I found:
Three days which occur four times a year: the Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday after St. Lucy's Day (Dec. 13), Ash Wednesday, the Day of Pentecost, and Holy Cross Day (Sept. 14). The name comes from the Latin title Quattuor tempora, meaning "four times." Or from the ancient Anglo-Saxon ymbra  meaning cycle. I will share another idea at the end. In ancient Italy the times (originally three) were associated with sowing, harvest, and vintage, for which one prayed, fasted, and gave alms. Later the four times became occasions for ordination, for which the Christian community prayed and the candidates prepared themselves by prayer and retreat. The BCP appoints proper collects and readings for this observance under the title "For the Ministry (Ember Days), including propers "For those to be ordained," "For the choice of fit persons for the ministry," and "For all Christians in their vocation" (BCP, pp. 256-257, 929).

Ember Days and Ember Weeks, in the Roman Catholic and Anglican churches, four “times” set apart for special prayer and fasting and for ordination of the clergy. The Ember Weeks are the complete weeks following (1) Holy Cross Day (September 14); (2) the Feast of St. Lucy (December 13); (3) the first Sunday in Lent; and (4) Pentecost (Whitsunday). The current practice is to compute the Ember Days directly as the Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday following the third Sunday of Advent, the first Sunday of Lent, Pentecost Sunday, and the third Sunday of September.

The exact origin of the Ember seasons is uncertain. In the early church, they were limited to three and may have been the Christian transformation of pagan festivals. From Rome the observance of the Ember Weeks and Days gradually spread throughout the Western church. On February 17, 1966, Pope Paul VI excluded the Ember Days from the church year as formal days of fasting and abstinence for Roman Catholics.

So was it four seasons in Latin, or cycle in Anglo-Saxon? Here is another idea from Pamela Dolan: 

“In the famous vision found in chapter 6 of the book of Isaiah the prophet encounters God on his throne, attended by seraphim. He is filled with dread until
one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. 7The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: ‘Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.’ 8Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’ And I said, ‘Here am I; send me!’
The live coal that touches Isaiah's lips--might an "ember" be a faint reminder of that? I certainly look forward to future Ember Days, and the opportunities they provide to pause and reflect on where and how (and in whom) I am seeing God, on what areas of my life need some cleansing and refining fire (in other words what are the sins that need to be "blotted out" through confession and absolution), and finally on how faithfully I am answering God's call to me.” source


Sunday, December 15, 2019

Year A Advent 3 2019 Anticipation & Joy

Year A Advent 3, 15 December 2019
St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA
“Anticipation & Joy”

Collect: Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us; and, because we are sorely hindered by our sins, let your bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit, be honor and glory, now and for ever. Amen.

Matthew 11:2-11
When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”
As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written,
‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way before you.’
“Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.”

Waiting can take so long. Ask any child this time of year. Will Christmas ever come? For those of us who know the rest of the story, we know that it will come, and we will have Joy. It is the struggle with Anticipation and Expectations that are the frustration and toil in the waiting. 

Those of us of a certain age, even have an image. Heinz Ketchup bottle tilted, the singular voice of Carly Simon sliding into the words… “An-tic-i-pat-ion. An-tic-i-pa-a-tion, it’s making you wait…” Now in the sales world they had a master stroke. Spin a negative into a positive. Take a complaint, and say, “We meant to do that.” A slow pour ketchup? Only a product as thick and rich would take so long to pour. It is worth the wait.

But I did not come up here today to talk about Ketchup or Carly Simon. Today is Guadete Sunday. The Sunday we focus on the Joy that the waiting is almost over. 

I love this time of year. I love the music. I love the buzz and stir, the excitement is palpable. It seems like everyone is on the same page, we all got the memo. We have much to be thankful for, much to give joy for…

First and foremost the coming of Jesus. Hallelujah! But we have added so much more. 

  • Family. 
  • Community. 
  • Light against the darkening skies. 

It is a festive season and all the best gets lumped in. 

People do not think twice about santa hats or silly sweaters, and people laugh with them, not at them. We enjoy rather than point fingers. 

Our canticle that we read, the Canticle of Mary, proclaims the Joy and Hope and Faith of her, a young teen probably whose faith was greater than the fear of possible judgment, scorn, or even death for shaming her family. She declares the greatness and goodness of God.

Some days faith is easy. We have strong feelings and can shout Hallelujah! We know without a doubt that God is God and God is good. God rules from heaven and all's right with the world! She said: 
My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,my spirit rejoices in God my Savior; for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant.From this day all generations will call me blessed:the Almighty has done great things for me, and holy is his Name.He has mercy on those who fear himin every generation.
This season is a resounding bell of faith. Faith that the shortening days will lengthen. Faith that the darkening moods with lighten. Faith that the wrong shall fail, and the right prevail.

Today’s collect calls us to the strengthened and renewed faith. Let nothing stand in our way of coming to God. Jesus opens the door, and allows us in. We prayed in our Collect for the day:
Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us; and, because we are sorely hindered by our sins, let your bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us; through Jesus Christ our Lord...

I think that is why candles and light are so inextricably bound to this time of year. Light is the symbol of what we are feeling.

Every few years our family goes down to Busch Gardens for Christmastown to see the supposed millions upon millions of lights. We always make sure, despite the cold, to take the Skyride. Swinging in the wind, the gondolas on the cables going from country to country allow us to get a scope on the millions and millions of lights shining. It is a bit overwhelming, but oh so beautiful.

This year we went on the way back from the beach so we could spend the day with my mom. This year was rainy. But a few years ago I remember it was a cold, cold night. I should have had an extra layer on, but I didn’t. At the end of the night, we got in line for our traditional Skyride to end our day. In France, there was no line, we got right on. But at the transfer station in Germany we had to get off and get back on. There was already quite the line there. We waited about 10 minutes, not too long, when the ride suddenly stopped. It just stopped. The employees kept announcing to those way up above the ground to stay in their seats and not worry. It was only a temporary delay.

I was quite glad we were still in the station, not up on the cable out in the wind. What was a fun and enjoyable cap on the evening could have become a long and cold pause on the joy if we had been stuck up there. After 10 or 12 minutes, the ride got going again, and we jumped on not thinking about it. 

I think of the people stuck in the skyride cars, alone, in the dark, waiting. It’s an amusement park. This was supposed to be fun, right? But in the cold and dark they sat alone swinging, seeing the lights far below and far away, and here they were apart. Trying to get to the joy, but something is holding them back. What a perfect metaphor for Advent. Between stations. Christ the King on one end, Christmas on the other, and here we are dangling. We see the lights around, but we are not there yet. We wait. We know the Joy is to be, and in the Anticipation and Expectation we wait. Our Joy is that the cold and wind is almost over and soon we will arrive at our destination, with Joy.

Whenever I mention Joy, I try to remind myself that Joy and Happiness are not the same. There can be Happiness in Joy, but there can be Joy in Sorrow as well. 

I was reminded of that this week when I was preparing for a funeral. The final words I say in the midst of the funeral rite are powerful and starkly juxtaposed with the feelings of most of the people there. A dramatic irony jumps out. Standing about the grave I say these words: 
You only are immortal, the creator and maker of mankind; and we are mortal, formed of the earth, and to earth shall we return. For so did you ordain when you created me, saying, "You are dust, and to dust you shall return."All of us go down to the dust; yet even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.

Happiness comes from the events around us. Joy comes from that deep abiding Hope that is within us, no matter the outward situation. Henri Nouwen described the difference:  Joy is “the experience of knowing that you are unconditionally loved and that nothing – sickness, failure, emotional distress, oppression, war, or even death - can take that love away.”

I think of John in the cell, almost sure never to come out. Alone with his thoughts, with his worries. Surrounded by his call, obsessed with the pull of God to “Prepare the way of the Lord!” We can tell by his worries how focused he was on what he felt God had created him to do. When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

Was he worried for no reason? Was he sinning in his doubts? No. No. No. He was fulfilling his call, driven by it. What I see in John’s doubts are the Accuser at work, going after what we care about most to drive us away from God. That is how the Devil works. Always has. Always will. 

From Eve’s Temptation, to Job’s Trials, to Jonah’s Doubts, to Jesus’ Temptation, we repeatedly see the Accuser, our Enemy, driving us by taking that which we love and are committed to and twisting it. The same is true for you and me. Manipulation has been the same since time immemorial. 

And when we see John in prison, awaiting death, the worries and accusations fly. “You wasted the gifts God gave you! You backed the wrong horse! You are a pathetic waste! You ruined God’s plans for the Messiah!”

And so he was led to ask, “Jesus, are you the One? Or are we to expect another?” John, in his joyful anticipation of the Hope he had hung all his life on, the square he had put all his chips on, the expectation of all the hopes and fears of all the years, he wanted a little assurance. Like the people in the gondola, he was dangling in the dark. 

Now Jesus being Jesus, calls John back to the faith Jesus knew he had. And Jesus being Jesus does not give him a yes or a no. Where’s the faith in that. But Jesus being Jesus quotes Isaiah, a passage of prophecy that both he and John knew so well. Isaiah 35 and Isaiah 61 are put together by this biblical scholar and given to another. This is not a yes or no. It is a “Heck Yeah!”

Jesus is telling John that the prophecies of old are here, reality, being fulfilled. Jesus is saying the proof is in the pudding. Here have a taste!

What Jesus is saying to John is for John to have Hope. Jesus is saying to John to have Joy. And we can, too.

And that is the message Jesus is giving us as well. We still wait. We still have doubts. we dangle in the dark in the cold. We still anticipate. The Accuser still drives us to distraction, twisting our loves, upturning our lives. We still need Joy. And yearly remind ourselves that the God of Power and Might, the God who made heaven and earth, the God who made you and me, chose to come and give us the message himself.

And what would God in the form of a babe have us hear?

You are Loved.

You are Mine.

Life is hard, but Joy can be yours.

You are always welcome home.

Amen. 

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Year A Advent 2 WED 2019 First Love

Year A Advent 2 WEDNESDAY, 11 December 2019
St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA
“First Love”

Revelation 1:17-2:7
When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. But he placed his right hand on me, saying, ‘Do not be afraid; I am the first and the last, and the living one. I was dead, and see, I am alive for ever and ever; and I have the keys of Death and of Hades. Now write what you have seen, what is, and what is to take place after this. As for the mystery of the seven stars that you saw in my right hand, and the seven golden lampstands: the seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands are the seven churches.
‘To the angel of the church in Ephesus write: These are the words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand, who walks among the seven golden lampstands:
‘I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance. I know that you cannot tolerate evildoers; you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them to be false. I also know that you are enduring patiently and bearing up for the sake of my name, and that you have not grown weary. But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. Remember then from what you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent. Yet this is to your credit: you hate the works of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate. Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches. To everyone who conquers, I will give permission to eat from the tree of life that is in the paradise of God.

Matthew 23:1-12 (mentioned, but the main text is Revelation)

This morning we look at those who have fallen away, either in their love or in their actions. The love of God led the Pharisees into a strict life governed by rigid laws. And soon they began to love the legalism more than the one who led them to such a strict lifestyle.

The other reading, from Revelation looks at those who have fallen away for other reasons. The people in the Church in Ephesus did what they were supposed to do, but in the busy-ness of the days they had let go of that passion, that thing that made them fall in love with Jesus in the first place. And the John the Revelator brings up the Nicolaitans, followers of the deacon of Jerusalem Nicholas, one of the first 7 deacons. He lived a life of hedonism and debauchery and taught others to do the same. He was thought and taught his freedom in Christ was there to do “whatever.”

I have often thought of this phrase, “you have abandoned the love you had at first.” It is so hard to keep that first love alive. We grow complacent. We take things for granted. We let go of the little things first, and then we find over days how much we have let slide.
In my younger days, I thought I understood this. I thought I knew what it meant. But with the water that has gone under the bridge and the grey hairs on my temples, I see how easy it is to let things slip. To forego the drive that was our all in all in younger, more vibrant, more loving days.

Now do not project, or assume. My wife and I are fine. But like in all relationships there are cycles and seasons. There are times when stuff got in the way of “us.” The kids. Work. Travel. Life. And when that happens I have to look at this one I have chosen and who chose me and remind myself of the girl this boy could not live without three decades ago. I have to go back to that first love.

My relationship with Christ is all the more so. When life is going crazy, that is when I need to slow down and get away with Christ. When I am hurting, I need to turn to him first, not as a last resort. When I am afraid, I bind myself in his love and Grace and know that he is bigger than anything I face, and even in the face of death itself he is waiting on the other side of that door.
When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. But he placed his right hand on me, saying, ‘Do not be afraid; I am the first and the last, and the living one. I was dead, and see, I am alive for ever and ever; and I have the keys of Death and of Hades.
If I put Christ first, everything else falls into place. Or as Jesus himself put it, “Seek first the Kingdom of God and God’s righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you.”

When we think of this place, our church, it is easy to think of it as the building, and all the upkeep it requires. Our church is not the building. I stand in the pulpit and I see the faces, some happy, some hurting, some attentive, some not. None of those faces are this church; all of them are. But the church is more than the faces. The image we are given today, when we are doing what Christ would have us do, we are a star shining in the hand of Christ, we are a lampstand shining in the darkness. We are Christ’s light, shining in this town. We are a lampstand, set high for all to see. That is what it looks like when we live fully into that first love, when we adore the Beloved, when we are adored by the Beloved. Amen.

Sunday, December 8, 2019

Year A Advent 2 2019 Forsake Our Sin

Year A Advent 2, 8 December 2019
St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA
“Forsake Our Sins”

Collect: Merciful God, who sent your messengers the prophets to preach repentance and prepare the way for our salvation: Give us grace to heed their warnings and forsake our sins, that we may greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ our Redeemer; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Matthew 3:1-12
In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,
“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.’”
Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.
“I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

Today I am going to talk about a rare topic, like politics and religion at a dinner table, too often in the Episcopal Church we avoid the subject of Sin. “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand!”

This week I went to the Ashland Clergy Lunch, a monthly gathering of fellow ministers here in town. It is for support, encouragement, warnings or updates of things happening in our community (both big and small), and camaraderie. I was surprised by the turn of the conversation, and actually deeply moved. We spoke about sin, and its ripple effect through the town and its outskirts. Personal sins, and the ripple effect through those connected directly or indirectly, or collective sins and the mismanagement and avoidance of them.

Some of you may be Star Wars geeks like me. And I have to admit, I am eating up the new series The Mandalorian more than I can say. A few weeks ago the episode, to my huge surprise, was called “The Sin.” Disney, Inc. and Star Wars seems to be more ready to talk about Sin than we are.

We avoid the topic of Sin because we do not want to discourage people, or to turn them off. We do not want to be confrontative. Or worst of all, we do not want to deal with it. But in my role as your priest, part of my job is to confront people in this parish who are “notoriously evil,” “scandalous,” or “hateful”  sinners and that if they continue in them, then I am to refuse them Communion. After church, please after church, look it up on page 409, like the Formula, of your Book of Common Prayer.

[Disciplinary Rubrics:
If the priest knows that a person who is living a notoriously evil life intends to come to Communion, the priest shall speak to that person privately, and tell him that he may not come to the Holy Table until he has given clear proof of repentance and amendment of life.
The priest shall follow the same procedure with those who have done wrong to their neighbors and are a scandal to the other members of the congregation, not allowing such persons to receive Communion until they have made restitution for the wrong they have done, or have at least promised to do so.
When the priest sees that there is hatred between members of the congregation, he shall speak privately to each of them, telling them that they may not receive Communion until they have forgiven each other.
And if the person or persons on one side truly forgive the others and desire and promise to make up for their faults, but those on the other side refuse to forgive, the priest shall allow those who are penitent to come to Communion, but not those who are stubborn.
In all such cases, the priest is required to notify the bishop, within fourteen days at the most, giving the reasons for refusing Communion.] (Book of Common Prayer, p. 409)

Sin can be seen a lot of ways. From my earliest days, sin was approached as a personal thing. Something to be ashamed of, something to be avoided. But that should be the actual Sin, but things do not get better if we do not talk about them. 

If it was discussed, it was generic. Sin was described as the term from archery, which is actually “sin,” which is the distance from where my arrow hits to the bullseye, what I was aiming for in the first place. So “missing the mark” was another way to look at it. 

My pastor growing up had another way he liked to describe it, and he said sin is spelt “little ess-big EYE-little enn.” 
sIn
When we put ourselves bigger than we should, when we put ourselves first, that is what he liked to call sIn. Sin, he said, is with a Capital I.

The Sunday before Thanksgiving in our Adult Confirmation class someone paid me a compliment of how open and accepting I am, and immediately, before I could think about it it rolled off my tongue, “Because I am a sinner saved by Grace.” Now I do attempt to be open and accepting. I try very hard not to judge, and particularly not to condemn, especially people we might collectively consider sinners. People who break their promises to God, or break what we see as promises to God. In fact, when we read the Gospels and Jesus is presented with sinners he welcomes, encourages, and loves them. Who is it he is frustrated with? Whose tables does he overturn? The people who had forgotten their sins, and God’s forgiveness of them. Who did Jesus get frustrated with? The people who had forgotten what it was like to be in need of Grace. John confronts them today, calling them “Brood of Vipers!”

Monday’s daily lectionary reading hit me so hard. It reminded me of who I used to be in my younger days: judgmental, holier-than-thou, ungracious, and smug. I knew the right words to say, but I had never felt the need of Grace having worked my whole life to not do anything wrong. I was pretty self-righteous. I heard a lot of that in these verses from St. Peter in II Peter: 
“...you must make every effort to support your faith with goodness, and goodness with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with endurance, and endurance with godliness, and godliness with mutual affection, and mutual affection with love. For if these things are yours and are increasing among you, they keep you from being ineffective and unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. For anyone who lacks these things is short-sighted and blind, and is forgetful of the cleansing of past sins.” (vv. 5b-9)
Why are supposed Christians so ungracious at times? They have forgotten their cleansing. Or sadly, they never had one. I shared those verses with one of my fellow pastors who was dealing with some who were so secure in their righteousness that confronting them with their sin was a threat, a threat to their self-perception, a threat to their fragile (and false) facade that they had built of who they were and their faith. They were forgetful of the cleansing of the past sins. When I am judgmental, holier-than-thou, ungracious, and/or smug I have my cleansing, too.

I find amusing that we avoid the Sin conversation. It is like going to a hospital and avoiding the word Sick. When we do not discuss the Sin in our lives, and how to grow in Christ and be saved from the cycle of sin upon sin upon sin, then we are at best a social club or feel-good society. We all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. We are all sinners who are saved by Grace. My righteousness comes from Christ, not anything I have done, could do, or conceive of on my own. As we turn to Christ, as we make Christ our own and not something we have received from our parents, or teachers, or pastors, this is often the first step. I messed up. I have sinned. And then we are invited to a second, and a third, and so on...

I can be gracious because of that. I cannot judge, because anything you could do I could do as well or worse. John cries out, “Get ready! The day is coming!” And while doing just that, it came. The Day had arrived.

John was baptizing people in recognition of that they were sinners and they were claiming a turn-around, a repentance of their sins. A preparation of heart and soul. As John said, “I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”

John’s Baptism was a cleansing in preparation, Jesus’ is a New Birth. John gave a bath and a hope, Jesus gives rewriting of our DNA. John was getting us ready for a date, Jesus’ was the marriage.

Friends, Jesus came not for us to be good. Jesus did not come for us to get our bar code so when it is scanned we can get into heaven. Jesus came to transform the world, one life, one nation or people, one world at a time. 

If you ever wondered how DRASTICALLY DIFFERENT the coming of Jesus was, let us go back to the prophecies from Isaiah:
Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist,
     and faithfulness the belt around his loins.
The wolf shall live with the lamb,
     the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
     and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze,
     their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
     and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder's den.
They will not hurt or destroy
     on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
     as the waters cover the sea.
On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples;
     the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious.
The world is supposed to turn upside down. Radical change. Wholesale change. The Sin is to be cleansed, transformed, and eradicated. The Wolf and the Lamb together, safe, secure, transformed.

One of my favorite books talks about the weakness of the Church, and too much of our work is looking at Gospels of Sin Management. Not eradication. Not forgiveness. But Sin Management. How do we live with it.

A friend of mine has cancer. He has had cancer for over a decade. He cannot get rid of it. He would love to get rid of it. He would love for it to disappear and never come back. But it is chronic. He takes medicine to hold it at bay. He goes in for semi-annual check-ups to see if things are being held at bay. Before Jesus came, that was humanity’s state. 

Lady Macbeth when she speaks shrieks, ‘Out, damned spot!” she seems worried about her hands, but she knows, as do all of us that the stain is not on her hands. The stain of her Sin is on her soul.

This Second Sunday of Advent, let us pause. Let us wait. There is little more important than this. Lift up to God those things done, and those things left undone that separates you from who God would have you be. In a few moments when we have the Prayer of Confession, we will give some extra time today for us to ponder, and pray.

Prepare the Way of the Lord. Make straight God’s paths. And the most important path to straighten is the one to your heart and soul. Amen

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Year A Advent 1 WED 2019 John of Damacus

Year A Advent 1 WEDNESDAY 4 December 2019
St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA
John of Damascus, Priest, c. 760

Collect: Confirm our minds, O Lord, in the mysteries of the true faith, set forth with power by your servant John of Damascus; that we, with him, confessing Jesus to be true God and true Man and singing the praises of the risen Lord, may, by the power of the resurrection, attain to eternal joy; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

(From: A Great Cloud of Witnesses) John of Damascus was the son of a Christian tax collector for the Muslim Caliph of Damascus. At an early age, he succeeded his father in this office. In about 715, he entered the monastery of St. Sabas near Jerusalem. There he devoted himself to an ascetic life and to the study of the Fathers.

In the same year that John was ordained priest, 726, the Byzantine Emperor Leo the Isaurian published his first edict against the Holy Images, which signaled the formal outbreak of the iconoclastic controversy. The edict forbade the veneration of sacred images, or icons, and ordered their destruction. In 729-730, John wrote three
“Apologies (or Treatises) against the Iconoclasts and in Defense of the Holy Images.” He argued that such pictures were not idols, for they represented neither false gods nor even the true God in his divine nature; but only saints, or our Lord as man. He further distinguished between the respect, or veneration (proskynesis), that is properly paid to created beings, and the worship (latreia), that is properly given only to God.

The iconoclast case rested, in part, upon the Monophysite heresy, which held that Christ had only one nature, and since that nature was divine, it would be improper to represent him by material substances such as wood and paint. The Monophysite heresy was condemned by the Council of Chalcedon in 451.

At issue also was the heresy of Manichaeism, which held that matter itself was essentially evil. In both of these heresies, John maintained, the Lord’s incarnation was rejected. The Seventh Ecumenical Council, in 787, decreed that crosses, icons, the book of the gospels, and other sacred objects were to receive reverence or veneration, expressed by salutations, incense, and lights, because the honor paid to them passed on to that which they represented. True worship (latreia), however, was due to God alone.




Here are some general characteristics of Icons (http://www.orthodoxinsight.com/icons/iconrules2.html)

Icons are often called 'windows to heaven' and because time and space are suspended in eternity, icons are two-dimensional (i.e. flat). There is no depth and event  s which occurred at different times in history are shown together.

The more spiritually important persons are usually larger in size to emphasize their status. There are no shadows since there is no darkness in heaven. The only variation in light appears in the halos that radiate from the holy persons represented (this illustrates that the spiritual light of grace which flows from the heart filled with the grace of the Holy Spirit rather than the floating halos of Western art). A lamp or candle is typically placed before the face to emphasize this glow.

Eyes are written large to show that the holy persons have seen God through faith. Ears are larger and mouths are smaller to emphasize the need to listen to God in silence. Saints face the viewer while others are in profile. Clothing and buildings sometimes reflect Byzantine style rather than first century Jerusalem. Bishop saints are distinguished by their vestments.

The traditional colors for icons are either color pigment in beeswax or egg tempera (the yolk of an egg mixed with an equal amount of water added to the pigment). Mounting on wood is standard. Modern methods often use acrylic (never oil) as well as mass-produced prints. This site contains extensive information on the process involved. Icons also vary slightly by style from country to country (Greek, Cretan, Russian, etc.) but basic rules remain the same.

The colors used in icons also have meaning:
Black: death and in other cases, evil
Blue: infinity and the spiritual world beyond the sky (dark blue is often used for Mary)
Brown: the material, mortal world
Gold: the divine nature of God (brightly radiating outward and dispelling all darkness)
Gray: never used because is a mixture of black and white (vague, unclear, 'lukewarm')
Purple: royalty
Red: Christ's resurrection, sacrifice and Christian martyrdom (the color of blood)
White: God's divine light, holiness and purity

Sunday, November 24, 2019

Year C Christ the King 2019 Remember Me...

Year C Christ the King Sunday, 24 November 2019
St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA
“Remember Me...”

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 for ever. Amen.

Colossians 1:11-20
May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light. He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; 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 himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. 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.

Luke 23:33-43
When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. Then Jesus said, "Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing." And they cast lots to divide his clothing. The people stood by, watching Jesus on the cross; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, "He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!" The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, and saying, "If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!" There was also an inscription over him, "This is the King of the Jews."

One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, "Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!" But the other rebuked him, saying, "Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong." Then he said, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom." He replied, "Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise."

This last Wednesday, I made it to Ashland Coffee and Tea late for our usual post-communion hang-out over breakfast. And because I was delayed, I stayed later than normal and had a wonderful conversation. The Holy Spirit can take you to amazing places, and in the conversation we pondered the two hanging next to Jesus and how they saw the world through how they spoke with him.

One, expecting little, mocked him. He did not have any hope left. He showed no respect. He showed no love. “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” I do NOT hear this as being a request, as Luke clearly says that he “kept deriding” Jesus. He chose to tear down, even with his dying breath.

And then we have the other criminal, who defended Jesus, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” I hear the resignation in his voice. I hear the honesty. I hear someone who is stretched naked, both literally and figuratively, in plain view of the whole world, knowing that he is where he should be, and that Jesus is not.

And in the final act of his life, he still holds on to hope. “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” That simple prayer says so much. The criminal is saying that Jesus is who he claimed to be, and despite this outcome, he held onto the idea that God gets the last word. As a priest friend of mine always says, “God bats last.” The criminal also realizes the reality that so many of Jesus’ followers seem to have missed. This Kingdom of God that is so prevalent in Jesus’ teachings, ripples into this world but also moves steadily into the world to come. The Kingdom of God is both Now and Later. Jesus, the crucified man is claiming, is going into his true Kingdom where corrupt officials and occupying armies do not exist. He is saying, in his own small way, I believe in you. Will you, if even for a second, think on me?

I can think of no greater prayer of Hope in who Jesus is and in the God who sent him than this man’s, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

When we behold Jesus on the cross, when we see him high and lifted up, what appears on the outside to be the most abysmal of failures is the greatest triumph. It is the epitome of the nature of God. Deep abiding, sacrificial love, the love that knits and holds the Universe together, the love that dreamt of you before you were born, and the love that will welcome you with open arms when you die. When we see Jesus on the cross we see, as C.S. Lewis called it in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, when we see Jesus on the cross we see the Deep Magic from “the stillness and the darkness before Time dawned…” Often in classic portraits of it, we hear the Latin Ecce Homo “Behold, the man!” The Quintessential Human. The one who is so like the way we were born to be they called him the New Adam. In him, especially so vulnerable, and still so loving, we see the Immortal Law behind the very nature of the Universe, Grace Unleashed. 

When we look to Jesus on the cross, and his interaction with the confessing thief, we see the miracle of the Incarnation. Now, 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.

When we see Jesus in his final moments we see him so true, so loving, that even a hardened man like the Roman Centurion supervising his death even declares, “Surely this Man is the Son of God!”

I think of Jesus on the cross and I cringe. He is there for me. I say he is my King of Kings, and my Lord of Lords. When I am at my best he truly is. And his sacrifice is what I pray I live up to.

I go to the New Testament reading last, because it is chronologically after the Gospel. St. Paul is writing to the Church in Colossae, and giving them an image called the Cosmic Christ by many scholars. It is the pre-incarnate Word at work in the universe, and the litany of attributes are beautiful and daunting to comprehend.

Hear again this love letter to the highest and best St. Paul knows: 
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; 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 himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. 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.
There is an old joke about the right answer to any question in Sunday School being Jesus. But here Paul is saying almost that. Before, during, and after Jesus was, is, and will be. He was there to shape the Cosmos. He is the cruxpoint of history, and will be there at the end. Like the Centurion he affirms, “Surely this is the Son of God.” And this from a man who organized the murder of those who followed Jesus. Jesus can transform anyone. Even you. Even me.

Today is the last Sunday in the Christian year, and we finish the year looking at the fullness, the culmination, the lordship of Jesus. Next Sunday, we begin again. We walk through the awaiting of the Christ to his birth, from the Epiphany (the realization of who he is) to Lent (the preparation for his crucifixion), to Easter and the glories of his resurrection to his Ascension, to the Pentecost when we take his role on us through the power of the Holy Spirit. And the culmination of the Pentecost, our acknowledging the Lordship of Christ, today. We wait for Christ, and we wait for Christ to come again.

One more image to ponder, seeing this is the end of the year, the Christian year anyway. If you knew that you were going to die tomorrow, what would you do? Most of us would feast and soak in the best within our reach. Jesus knew he was going to die, and with one day left what did he do? Wash his students’ feet, reminded them to love one another and not to fight amongst themselves, and then he prayed that God would forgive us because we did not know what we were doing. If that is not holy, if that is not godly, if that is not beautiful, I do not know what is.

As we come to his table of Thanksgiving (for that is what Eucharist means), let this day be one of feasting. May our prayer today and always be, “Jesus, remember me…” 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, too, will be welcomed home in Paradise. Amen


Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Year C Proper 28 WED 2019 Expectations

Year C Proper 28 WED, 20 November 2019
St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA
“Expectations”

Collect: Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Matthew 17:22-27
As they were gathering in Galilee, Jesus said to them, “The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and on the third day he will be raised.” And they were greatly distressed.

When they reached Capernaum, the collectors of the temple tax came to Peter and said, “Does your teacher not pay the temple tax?” He said, “Yes, he does.” And when he came home, Jesus spoke of it first, asking, “What do you think, Simon? From whom do kings of the earth take toll or tribute? From their children or from others?” When Peter said, “From others,” Jesus said to him, “Then the children are free. However, so that we do not give offense to them, go to the sea and cast a hook; take the first fish that comes up; and when you open its mouth, you will find a coin; take that and give it to them for you and me.”

What an odd story. Who owes what to whom? A great question we all still struggle to answer. 

All good Israelites and Levites would have had to pay the Temple Tax of half a shekel. It was for the upkeep of the beautiful facility. But it got me thinking, how much of what we do is because of someone else’s expectations. Expectations, not needs.

I had a friend who went to orientation to begin a seminary degree. Her dad was a minister, and she applied, was accepted, and began the yearly rite of first year orientation. Sitting there, on day one, she noticed she was not listening to a word that was being said. She was zoned out, with the thought running through her head, “What are you doing here?” She stopped and asked herself about that question. Is that what she is really feeling? And after she did some real soul searching, she saw finally that she had applied, and was accepted all to make her father happy. She felt the call, but not the call from God. At the next break, she got up and left.

So much of our behavior, especially early in life, comes from those external expectations. Don’t do this, don’t do that, I don’t want to make _________ [fill-in-the-blank] unhappy. Living up to expectations can be good or can be bad.

One of the big lessons in maturing is letting go of those expectations so we can live our own life, but Jesus lived up to expectations. Here he pays the Temple Tax, despite openly declaring he did not owe it…

“What do you think, Simon? From whom do kings of the earth take toll or tribute? From their children or from others?” Obviously, “From others.” 

The kids do not pay the king tribute. The subjects and vassals owe the tribute. The kids are free. But notice, after boldly declaring that he owed nothing to nobody, just instructs Peter how to pay the tax. (I am not getting into the whole coin in the fish’s mouth thing because I cannot explain it. Let’s just take it at face value. Okay?)

Jesus lives up to people’s expectations. He does it in other places, too. When Mary urges him to “do something” at the wedding in Cana, and he turns water to wine, he was living up to mom’s expectations. When he tells the disciples to have some swords at Gethsemane so when they are accused of being “transgressors” they can be found guilty. He got two by the way. Jesus is shown again and again to consider others’ expectations, for good or bad. Often doing so takes a price of us. And we have to determine if it is worth it or not.

I think one reason, or at least I read it this way, that Jesus is so ridiculous in where he gets his tax (out of the mouth of a fish). His owing for the upkeep of the Temple when the priests do not owe is as ridiculous, for those in the know anyway. But he understands that in his role as a human and a member of a people, part of being in those roles is fulfilling expectations. I had an old boss talk about “having to pay the bills.” It was not the tasks we wanted to do, but it was what we had to do to do the fun/enjoyable/rewarding stuff.

Living up to other people’s expectations can be a chore. It can also be a way of saying “I love you.” You do it not because you need to, but because the other person/group feels the need for it. We do the thing out of love, out of relationship, out of the desire to maintain and help us both to grow in love together. Not out of obligation, not out of duty, but out of love. Amen

Monday, November 18, 2019

Year C Proper 28 2019 "Don't You See It?"

Year C Proper 28, 17 November 2019
St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA
“Don’t You See It?”

Collect: Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Isaiah 65:17-25
Luke 21:5-19
When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, Jesus said, "As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down."
They asked him, "Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?" And he said, "Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, `I am he!' and, `The time is near!' Do not go after them.
"When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately." Then he said to them, "Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.
"But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. This will give you an opportunity to testify. So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name. But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls."

Way back at the end of the last millennium, really, that far ago, I was working at the Seminary I had graduated from. I served as their recruiter. It was my job to help arrange campus visits to the Seminary, and to go out and speak to college groups and conventions mostly about feeling a call into the ministry. Half of my job was on the road, and half of my job was working with folks over the phone and through the mail. I was good at it, and recruitment was going well. The President of the school asked to meet with me near the end of my first year. I was hoping that my part-time job might be becoming full-time. Whatever day it was, I remember it was in the mid-morning. I was greeted and immediately was told that the funding for my job had been cut, and that at the end of my first year contract I would not be kept on. Normally I would call Steph once or twice during the day to check in, but I was in shock. I just could not tell her over the phone. It was hard news, bad news, and it would cost us dearly.

Unlike her, Steph came home late and sat down. Before I could tell her the bad news, she said, “I have something to tell you.” You see, her boss had called her into their office, mid-morning, and let her know that at the end of the yearly academic contract hers would not be renewed. The same day, at approximately the same time, we were both let go as of July 1. After I told her my news, I said, “Well, it will be interesting to see what God has in store for us.” 

Friends, I am here to tell you, Bad Things Happen. Even when you are doing things right. Even with no fault, Bad Things Happen. They do. If anyone tells you something other, they are out to con you. We both were in good jobs, where we were doing well and being encouraged, when, through no fault of our own, we were both fired. Well, laid off, but it amounted to the same.

We had built big plans in our heads. We had hopes we had constructed into some Castles, but they were in the sky. Nothing was real, and we had a price to pay for stacking these dreams on top of each other. These dreams did not last that fateful day, and I have to tell you, there is very little that really will last.

Last weekend I had the gracious honor to speak at the 160th Anniversary of our sister parish St. David’s over in Aylett. I reminded them how rare it is for any human institution to survive the lifetime of its founders. Most of our endeavors fall apart. Glad God seems to be in on ours!

In today’s reading Jesus is making a comment on how even something so grand as Solomon’s Temple, something so seemingly permanent will one day be thrown down. I hear Jesus making a generality about the stones being pulled down from one another, and it was heard as an imminent prediction. The disciples were wanting the 411, the Where, the When. But I hear Jesus just saying “Count on it… sometime, maybe even soon, or far away. But you can count on it.”

As Robert Frost penned: Nothing gold can stay. Now this was talking about the color of the leaves, but even then it is fleeting.

If Nature cannot hold on to its gold, why do we think that we can? As grand a space and place as this is, as beautiful and magnificent the monuments are in Washington, DC, as utterly perfect the Basilica of St. Peter is in Rome, one day they will no longer be. Entropy is. Things fall apart. Such is existence.

But notice, even with these dire predictions of Jesus, for the Temple and then even worse ones for his followers, he says to keep plugging along. Bad things WILL HAPPEN. Do the things anyway, for that is the gist of Life.

If nothing lasts, if there is nothing of permanence, then what do we do? Where do we put our energies?

Thankfully, as discouraging as the Gospel may be, we are also given Isaiah’s prophecy and promise. Where do we put our energies? From today’s Isaiah reading:
For I am about to create new heavensand a new earth;the former things shall not be rememberedor come to mind.But be glad and rejoice foreverin what I am creating;for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight.I will rejoice in Jerusalem,and delight in my people;no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it,or the cry of distress.
If God’s new thing is God’s people, if God’s new creation is us, what might that show us? How might that encourage us? Where do we put our energies? 

Each other! And in so doing, we are building up the Kingdom of God.

SO, if Bad Things Happen, if Entropy Is, WHAT DO WE DO???

Keith M. Kent made a few Paradoxical Commandments saying as much. (This has also been attributed to Mother Teresa, but Dr. Kent owns the copyright.)

People are often unreasonable, illogical and self centered;Forgive them anyway.

If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives;Be kind anyway.

If you are successful, you will win some false friends and some true enemies;Succeed anyway.

If you are honest and frank, people may cheat you;Be honest and frank anyway.

What you spend years building, someone could destroy overnight;Build anyway.
If you find serenity and happiness, they may be jealous;
Be happy anyway.
The good you do today, people will often forget tomorrow;Do good anyway. 
Give the world the best you have, and it may never be enough;Give the world the best you've got anyway. 
You see, in the final analysis, it is between you and your God;It was never between you and them anyway.

It is easy to be discouraged when we swim in discouraging waters. But Jesus teaches us that the things that may seem so permanent and stolid and fixed, are not. Nothing on this side of heaven is permanent. But that does not stop us. What you see yourself building makes a difference.

You may have heard this story before. But it resonates so well.  Once a person was walking along and spied a mason hard at work. The person asked, “What are you doing?” Nonchalantly, the mason responded, “Building a wall.” And then kept on with the work.

The person kept going and asked another mason he happened onto quite soon, “What are you doing?” Again, with little enthusiasm, the 2nd Mason said, “Making some church.” And kept on slapping the mud and stacking the bricks.

The person kept walking, and happened upon a third mason. “What are you doing?” he inquired again. The Third Mason stood up, spreading his arms, and with a sense of wonder, “Don’t you see it? We are building a Cathedral! It will be grand.”

Friends, we always have to keep in mind what it is we are building, and who we are building it for. If you are just making a wall, it will only last so long. If you are building some church, it could come or go. But friends, grander than any Cathedral, we are building the Kingdom of God! Don’t you see it?

That is why we can suffer, and strive, be hated, and even killed. And why would we do it? Because we are part of a work that is bigger, grander, longer-lived than ourselves. We are more than a piece to a puzzle. But without our specks on our piece of the puzzle. “Now you are the Body of Christ and individually members of it.” [I Corinthians 12:27]

There will be times when we be spellbound by the splendor, good! Stop and be in awe. The mason who could step back in wonder and say, “I am building a Cathedral! Don’t you see it.” may not do more work, but it will be better because it was done in love and to the glory of God.Whatever we will build up, someone someday will tear down. Could be soon, could be well beyond our lifetimes.

Think now on how we can make Ashland and Hanover County a little bit more like heaven. If all of us, in our own ways did what we could, when we could think on what it could be like. “Don’t you see it?”

When we set about the long hard work that we do, strive, sweat, struggle, but do it all in love. Or as St. Paul put it: “Keep alert, stand firm in your faith, be courageous, be strong. Let all that you do be done in love.” [I Corinthians 14:13-14]

This week we will be trying something new. Something hard. Something audacious. Whatever it is we do, do it in love. The Stew Fest is now only days away. Many of us will be spending most of our week preparing, and saying some prayers while we do so. If you are stirring the pots, do it in love and do it for God. If you are picking the chicken, selling tickets, or directing traffic, do it in love, do it for for God. Whatever you do, do it in love, and do it for God. Some people may get frustrated and get on your nerves. Love them through it. Some people may be welcomed at a church for the very first time. How you sell them their stew may be the first time they connect loving faithful service as part of the Kingdom of God. And we will pay the price. We will be stiff and sore. We will be too cold and at times too hot. “Keep alert, stand firm in your faith, be courageous, be strong. Let all that you do be done in love.” And why do we do this? For the Glory of God, and to further the Kingdom. As God promised in Isaiah:
For I am about to create new heavensand a new earth;the former things shall not be rememberedor come to mind.But be glad and rejoice foreverin what I am creating! 
Don’t you  see it?!?!?! AMEN!