Sunday, November 10, 2019

Year C Proper 27 2019 Distractions

Year C Proper 27, 10 November 2019
St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA

Collect: O God, whose blessed Son came into the world that he might destroy the works of the devil and make us children of God and heirs of eternal life: Grant that, having this hope, we may purify ourselves as he is pure; that, when he comes again with power and great glory, we may be made like him in his eternal and glorious kingdom; where he lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Haggai 1:15b-2:9
2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17
Luke 20:27-38
Some Sadducees, those who say there is no resurrection, came to Jesus and asked him a question, "Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man's brother dies, leaving a wife but no children, the man shall marry the widow and raise up children for his brother. Now there were seven brothers; the first married, and died childless; then the second and the third married her, and so in the same way all seven died childless. Finally the woman also died. In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had married her."

Jesus said to them, "Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage. Indeed they cannot die anymore, because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection. And the fact that the dead are raised Moses himself showed, in the story about the bush, where he speaks of the Lord as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive."

This week on Wednesday we gather here in this room the celebrate A Renewal of Ministry and the Welcome the New Rector. Quite the mouthful. As we venture into this new “official” status of our relationship. And it has gotten me to reminiscing.

Last night I was telling my daughter about my first Sunday as a priest. I was ordained on a Saturday, and the next day our interim Rector texted me to let me know she had lost her voice and that I was flying solo on my first day out of the gate. No pressure. I made a few mistakes, but in one instance that day, I know God was with me.

Now as Episcopalians, we know when we come to receive Communion, we usually do one of two things. If we want a blessing, we cross our arms in front of our chest. If we wish to partake in Communion, we place our hands together in an X making a cross and I place the wafer or pinch of bread there. Now our brothers and sisters coming from the Catholic Church often do not realize they can touch the host, and will often stick out their tongue to receive. This is much easier with a wafer than with bread, let me tell you. Well this particular Sunday, when I was trying to so hard to not get distracted and not to mess up, I know God was with me. 

One of our parishioners was a former Catholic and still liked receiving on his tongue. He was also from a group home around the corner from the church, and often it was easier to give him the bread on his tongue than try to explain to him how we do it in the Episcopal Church.

So here he was at the altar rail, and as I came to him, I looked down at him to see his outstretched tongue. I was used to this from my time as a deacon there. I go to place the bread on his tongue, and out pop his dentures looking like the Alien’s tongue from the movie (Alien). 

I know God was with me because I did not scream. What a distraction! Luckily, my composure was kept, and I was able to continue on serving. 

Speaking of distractions, our texts are exactly that, examples of distractions from what should have the majority of our focus and attention. Three years ago, when I preached on these texts, it was the week of the presidential election, and I was preaching in Liverpool at St. Gabriel’s. I remember how distracted we were as a nation. I shared that for the previous several months the USA had been focused and fixated on what should be minor attractions instead of the center stage of our lives. I shared how the election had divided our communities, our churches, and our families. I even when on to say with some relief that the week would see an end to the distractions, and by Wednesday, the election of the United States president will be over. Little did I realize how the division and distractions would only escalate. God help us. That is one of the main reasons that our prayer service last week gave me hope. It kept the main thing the main thing.

When we major in the minors, when we let our focus be on the things that do not matter in long run, and probably should not matter at all, we get away from the lives God would have us live. So many things can derail us spiritually. Our health. Our economic situation. Our politics. Bad clergy-people. Whatever is a distraction to myself or any of you is a hindrance to our spiritual lives.

In Haggai, the prophet declares that God wants them to “Take courage.” Fear can be a huge distraction. In fact, I think one of the major ills in our nation since the 9/11 attacks. We have become a fearful nation. We have learned and had reinforced to not trust our neighbor, and to trust the stranger in our midst even less. One of our great presidents, Franklin Delano Roosevelt said in his first inaugural address, when the country was still reeling from the Great Depression, these famous words, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Haggai says to his people the same thing. Do not be distracted by your fear! Or from the Scripture: “I am with you, says the LORD of hosts, according to the promise that I made you when you came out of Egypt. My spirit abides among you; do not fear!” 

There have been times in my life when I have been afraid. Terrified in fact. And I think of the times when I chose to cower and give into my fear. Those are the times when I remember being most defeated. This situation did not defeat me, but my choosing to cower was a defeat of who God made me to be. There were other times when I was afraid and I stood up, and took a stand. Sometimes I triumphed, and sometimes I failed. But when I took courage and made a stand, I may have failed, but I was not a failure. I could say I had done my best, with what I had, and I did not hang my head. Fear is an enemy of who God is calling us to be. “Fear not!” says the Lord.

But Paul in Second Thessalonians looks at another distraction, deception. One of the problems of religious people in general is that we are believers. Believing in God is good, but believing anyone who comes along is not. Some of us err on the skeptical side of belief, and some of us err on the side of TB, and we have a raging case of True Believer-ism. But both of the extremes still fall on the side of believing, and that can set us up for being tricked, conned, cajoled, and hoodwinked. We tend to give people the benefit of the doubt, and that is a hindrance of who God would have us be as well. It is, I believe, the shadow side of belief.

And here we are, almost 2,000 years later, still awaiting Christ’s return. Paul had to quell the excitement of this anticipation in the early days of the Church. 
As to the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered together to him, we beg you, brothers and sisters, not to be quickly shaken in mind or alarmed, either by spirit or by word or by letter, as though from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord is already here. Let no one deceive you in any way...
Tricksters are out there. Jesus commanded us to be “as cunning as serpents and as innocent as doves.” Matthew 10:3 It is an issue which we have been warned that we will have to deal with. Even in the election three years ago, BOTH SIDES had Christians claiming that God is for their candidate and only their side is righteous. Tricksters and charlatans. Still with us, and, sadly, I think they always will be. We need to not be distracted by those that would derail our walk with Christ, and in Christ, and for Christ.

But fear and deception are not our only distraction, we also have the hurdle of nit-pickiness to overcome. Yes, nit-pickiness. Sometimes we zoom in on such small things that make no sense when we see things from the outside. I would call them pharisaical, but they were Sadducees. The Sadducees were attempting to play Gotcha! with Jesus. Could they catch him being, in their minds, stupid? They are seeing if this young Rabbi is worth his reputation. They are playing theoretical theology. “What if…?” But Jesus calls them on it, he reproaches them for their hypocrisy and their attempt to distract him. Others there wanted to learn and grow in their faith, and the Sadducees are playing games. The problem with their question is on whether the legalism on this side of heaven continues on into the next. They even could have been mocking Jesus, in that he, like the Pharisees believed in an afterlife. The Sadducees did not believe in anything coming after this life. With their ridiculous question, they are making fun of this belief and those who hold it. But even there, Jesus does not reject them, but raises the level of conversation, showing their foundational denial of the afterlife is a problem. Jesus goes back to Moses, who speaks of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of the Living, not of the dead. We might phrase in the New Testament language of the God who was and is and is to come, or Jesus being the same yesterday, today and forever.  This distraction of diverting Jesus from what is most important is something that can happen to us in our spiritual lives, as well. 

Paul McCartney in his love song “Distractions,” from his wonderful Flowers in the Dirt solo album, questions why he gets sidetracked and drawn away from the one who holds his heart:
Why are there always so many other things to do?
Distractions, like butterflies are buzzing 'round my head,
When I'm alone I think of you
And the life we'd lead if we could only be free
From these distractions.
Is it not the same with God? What draws us away from seeking first God’s Kingdom and God’s righteousness? I think all of us would have a different answer. 

Every New Year I will probably talk about taking inventory. I said it before and I will probably say it again. Look at your calendar and your bank and credit card statements. Those will show you what you hold most important. Where is God’s church on your priorities? How about your daily agenda? Do you make space for God? That is often the easiest and first thing to go when we get busy and have our days taken away from us. I have found though, when the day gets at its worst, I need more to pray and listen, and to find God in Scripture. Like all things that are good for us, we mostly know what we should do, but these temptations and distractions that get in our way.

My daughter Sojo is a very bright and capable young lady. She is quick to make connections, but early in her life she had to overcome some hurdles that most of us do not need to overcome. Her learning style is as unique as she is, and often she is wondering about time travel or quantum physics when I am asking her what she wants for lunch. She is just so curious that she cannot help but follow a mental rabbit if it goes running by her consciousness. So, if I am making her lunch, or whatever it is, my wife and I have found a phrase that draws her back. Instead of correcting her, we simply ask, “Are you with me, Sojo?” In preparing for today, I could see the smile on God’s face and how often he has had to ask of me, “Rock, are you with me?” “Rock, hello Rock, are you with me?” And God asks the same of all of us. In the midst of all the things that distract us, often good, important things, we hear God ask, “Are you with me?” Seek first the Kingdom of God, and God’s righteousness and all these things shall be added unto to you. I believe God means it. If we put God first, everything else will fall into place. Amen

Saturday, November 9, 2019

Year C Proper 26 SAT 2019 St David's Aylett 160th Anniversary A New Thing

Year C Proper 26 SATURDAY
160th Anniversary Celebration for St. David’s, Aylett, VA
“A New Thing”

Isaiah 43:14-21
Thus says the Lord, your Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel:
For your sake I will send to Babylon
   and break down all the bars,
   and the shouting of the Chaldeans will be turned to lamentation.
I am the Lord, your Holy One,
   the Creator of Israel, your King.
Thus says the Lord,
   who makes a way in the sea,
   a path in the mighty waters,
who brings out chariot and horse,
   army and warrior;
they lie down, they cannot rise,
   they are extinguished, quenched like a wick:
Do not remember the former things,
   or consider the things of old.
I am about to do a new thing;
   now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
I will make a way in the wilderness
   and rivers in the desert.
The wild animals will honour me,
   the jackals and the ostriches;
for I give water in the wilderness,
   rivers in the desert,
to give drink to my chosen people,
   the people whom I formed for myself
so that they might declare my praise.

Matthew 21:12-16
Then Jesus entered the temple and drove out all who were selling and buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold doves. He said to them, ‘It is written,
“My house shall be called a house of prayer”;
   but you are making it a den of robbers.’
The blind and the lame came to him in the temple, and he cured them. But when the chief priests and the scribes saw the amazing things that he did, and heard the children crying out in the temple, ‘Hosanna to the Son of David’, they became angry and said to him, ‘Do you hear what these are saying?’ Jesus said to them, ‘Yes; have you never read,
“Out of the mouths of infants and nursing babies
   you have prepared praise for yourself”?’

To quote the Apostle Paul, I share with you from Philippians 1 (vv. 3-5):
I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now. I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ. 
I can honestly say, that St. David’s was a lifesaver for me and my family when we had little hope, and the light at the end of the tunnel seemed to be more of an oncoming train. Having been laid off from my parish, and then laid off again during my times with you, it was hard for me to consider what God might hold for us in the days to come.

Since then, all our lives have changed. Father Gustavo is with you. I am now the Rector at St. James the Less, and our Celebration of New Ministry is this Wednesday night at 7 p.m. if you you are up to coming all the way to Ashland. God had plans for us we knew nothing about. Thanks be to God.

God will not be mocked. And Jesus will be lifted up. Our Gospel reminds us of that. God wants his temples to be Houses of Prayer, a place to connect with the Eternal in our limited capacity. And even more, it is a place where we praise the name of Jesus like the infants that came to him. In fact, as we lift up the name of Jesus, and more and more open ourselves to prayer, God can do mighty things. If there are any words I can leave with you today, or with any parish any day, it would be to be a House of Prayer and Lift High the Name of Jesus.

Think of how audacious a thing prayer is. We presume first off that there is a God. For many that is a point of contention, and even more a point of ridicule. As St. Paul said, “we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.”

Then we have the audacity to think that God not only hears us, but that God wants to hear from us. And then we stretch the audacity to the point of the absurd (to many) that God wants what is best for us. As the Prophet Jeremiah reminded God’s People: 
For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.” (Jeremiah 29:11)
Friends, that is our faith. That is our only hope. And how do we have this Audacity? Because the God who was with us in the beginning, has been with us all along the way; God is the one who will be with us in the end. God, the same Yesterday, Today, and Forever. And when we look at our past, God is there. When we look at our Now, no matter how dark the day, God is here. But God is not the God of Yesterday, nor the God of the Now. God is the God of  Yesterday, Now and Forever. No matter where or WHEN we go, God is already there. How can we not have Hope?

We come today in celebration of the work of God here at St. David’s Aylett for one-hundred-sixty years. And yet what is so long to us is a blink of the Almighty Eye of God. Hold on to that. God is the God of your Future as much as God has been with you in this one-hundred-sixty year long Blink of an Eye.

Friends, know that we have a limited capacity, and that can be a help. Often if we knew where the Hand of God was leading we might be scared or run away like Jonah who thought he could escape God. But God lets us know one step at a time. And what seems like a failure or tragedy God can use to transform us to who God would have us to be and enable us to do what God would have us do. In the Economy of the Kingdom NOTHING IS EVER WASTED.  

Picture this: In Spotsylvania County, near Penney’s Crossroads, Area Code 22534, the Ma River springs up out of the earth. Passing near Thornburg, then Bowling Green and Milford, it flows. Joining with its sisters, the Ta, Po, and Ni Rivers the Mattaponi is formed, winding and running its course until it flows to behind us right here in Aylett. The Mattaponi joins the Pamunkey in West Point birthing the mighty York where the monumental battle at Yorktown was won by blockading the reinforcements of Lord Cornwallis, birthing this mighty nation we love. The York flows into the Hampton Roads. Joining with so many waters creating one of the great bodies of water giving life and beauty, the Chesapeake Bay. And the Chesapeake connects Baltimore, Washington, D.C. with us here today. And the Chesapeake flows into the Atlantic, and the Atlantic connects us with the rest of the world. Never forget that. And that my friends is why what you do here is so important.

What happens in Aylett at St. David’s connects you to the rest of the world. St. David’s connects with its Region, which connects it to the Diocese, which connects it to the Episcopal Church, which connects it to the catholic [universal] church which connects us with the rest of the world. You are the Episcopal Branch of the Jesus Movement in Aylett and King William County. Through you, lives are touched and changed. People are loved with the love of God through your work and your words. Your mission here creates ripples which flow through those connections and touch all of the world.

As the prophet Isaiah spoke, I repeat today: 

Do not remember the former things,   or consider the things of old.I am about to do a new thing;   now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?I will make a way in the wilderness   and rivers in the desert.

The death of any organization, especially the local parish of the Church, happens when someone convinces it that its best days are behind it. When we sit in the dark, our eyes get used to the dark. We only perceive darkness. But slowly, as the dawn is coming, we begin to see more, colors begin to emerge from the black and grey we have seen for so long. We may forget the dawn. But it is coming. If God can make a way in the desert, if God can sprout a river in the desert (or Penney’s Crossroads for that matter), if God can save your church from the outrages of the Civil War, what is God dreaming up for St. David’s Aylett tomorrow? Most organizations do not last past the generation that founded it. You have already done that 8 times over, so it begs the question. What is God dreaming up for you all to do? Where is God leading you? What glory to God can be made by your faith, by your hard work, by your love of God and neighbor?

I am about to do a new thing;   now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?

Brothers and Sisters, as you live into that question, you will show your faith and trust in the Living God. God’s blessings be with you all, now and always! Amen

Wednesday, November 6, 2019

Year C Proper 26 WED 2019 William Temple

Year C Proper 26, 6 November 2019
St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA
“William Temple” from Great Cloud of Witnesses

William Temple, Archbishop of Canterbury, 1944
William Temple was a renowned teacher and preacher, regarded as one of the most exemplary Archbishops of Canterbury of the 20th century. His writings reflect a robust social theology that engages the challenges of modern industrialized society.

Temple was born October 15, 1881, and baptized three weeks later, on November 6, in Exeter Cathedral. His father, Dr. Frederick Temple, Bishop of Exeter and then of London, became Archbishop of Canterbury when William was fifteen. Growing up at the heart of the Church of England, William’s love for it was deep and lifelong.

Endowed with a brilliant mind, Temple took a first-class honors degree in classics and philosophy at Oxford, where he was then elected Fellow of Queen’s College. At the age of twenty-nine he became headmaster of Repton School, and then, in quick succession, rector of St. James’s Church, Piccadilly, Bishop of Manchester, and Archbishop of York. Though he was never subject to poverty himself, he developed a
passion for social justice which shaped his words and his actions. He owed this passion to a profound belief in the Incarnation. He wrote that in Jesus Christ God took flesh and dwelt among us, and, as a consequence, “the personality of every man and woman is sacred.” In 1917, Temple resigned from St. James’s, Piccadilly, to devote his energies to the “Life and Liberty” movement for reform within the Church of England. Two years later, an Act of Parliament led to the setting up of the Church Assembly, which for the first time gave the laity a voice in Church matters.

As bishop, and later as archbishop, Temple committed himself to seeking “the things which pertain to the Kingdom of God.” He understood the Incarnation as giving worth and meaning not only to individuals but to all of life. He therefore took the lead in establishing the Conference on Christian Politics, Economics, and Citizenship (COPEC), held 1924. In 1940, he convened the great Malvern Conference to reflect on the social reconstruction that would be needed in Britain once the Second World War was over.

At the same time, he was a prolific writer on theological, ecumenical, and social topics, and his two-volume Readings in St. John’s Gospel, written in the early days of the war, rapidly became a spiritual classic. In 1942, Temple was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury and reached an even wider audience through his wartime radio addresses and newspaper articles. However, the scope of his responsibilities and the
pace he set himself took their toll. On October 26, 1944, he died at Westgate-on-Sea, Kent, after only two and a half years at Canterbury.

Some quotes to ponder:

  • My worth is what I am worth to God; and that is a marvelous great deal, for Christ died for me. Thus, incidentally, what gives to each of us His highest worth gives the same worth to everyone; in all that matters most are we equal
  • When I pray, coincidences happen, and when I don't, they don't.
  • The only thing of our very own which we contribute to our salvation is the sin which makes it necessary.
  • To evangelize is so to present Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit, that men shall come to put their trust in God through Him, to accept Him as their Savior, and serve Him as their King in the fellowship of His church.
  • Worship is the submission of all our nature to God. It is the quickening of conscience by His holiness, the nourishment of the mind with His truth, the purifying of the imagination of His beauty, the opening of the heart to His love, the surrender of the will to His purpose.
  • The Church is the only society that exists for the benefit of those who are not its members.

Sunday, November 3, 2019

Year C All Saints 2019 Drops in the Bucket

Year C All Saints’ Day (Observed) 3 November 2019
St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA
“Drops in the Bucket”

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

Luke 6:20-31
Jesus looked up at his disciples and said:
“Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.
“Blessed are you who are hungry now,
for you will be filled.
“Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh.
“Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets."
"But woe to you who are rich,
for you have received your consolation.
"Woe to you who are full now,
for you will be hungry.
"Woe to you who are laughing now,
for you will mourn and weep.
"Woe to you when all speak well of you,
for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.
"But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.

“Good morning, Saints. [wait]
“Good morning, Sinners.” [wait]

Professor Leonard Sweet, a Christian writer and speaker, opens speaking engagements that way. At least he used to when he was making the rounds more. Usually when I heard him it was in a roomful of other ministers. The response to the first good morning to the Saints was loud and echoing. The response to the second, the Sinners, was less, much less.

We are often so ready to hear the Blessings, and shrink away when it comes round to the woes. It does not make us bad, but often we skip over the cautions, like we do with user agreements on the internet. We just do not want to go there.

Jesus does that in his sermon today, calling out the contradictions; he is speaking blessings to those in need, and woes to those in need of nothing. Jesus inaugurates his public ministry in Luke with what is dubbed the Sermon on the Plain. Matthew’s setting is on a mountain, much like another Moses handing down a new law. In both Gospels, the sermon comes after the calling of the 12 Disciples. Matthew’s Beatitudes is more spiritual, aspirational even. But here in Luke, Luke levels things out. Luke is willing to get his hands dirty. Luke has some blessings, but he also has some woes. Luke includes everybody. The Down-&-Outs and the Up-&-Ins. No one is excluded from this Gospel that Jesus is bringing. No one is without the need of what he is saying: the Poor, the Hungry, the Weeping, the Hated, the Rich, the Full, the Weeping, the Respected. All are in need, and change is coming for the Kingdom of God is at hand.

And the Kingdom is radically different and as controversial today as it was then. Every so often we need spiritual Q-Tips to clean out the wax from hearing things our whole lives. Listen to the words of Jesus he wants all to hear from Eugene Peterson’s The Message. This comes right after the Blessings and Woes:
To you who are ready for the truth, I say this: Love your enemies. Let them bring out the best in you, not the worst. When someone gives you a hard time, respond with the energies of prayer for that person. If someone slaps you in the face, stand there and take it. If someone grabs your shirt, giftwrap your best coat and make a present of it. If someone takes unfair advantage of you, use the occasion to practice the servant life. No more tit-for-tat stuff. Live generously. Here is a simple rule of thumb for behavior: Ask yourself what you want people to do for you; then grab the initiative and do it for them!

And this is what it gets at. Transformation. Wholesale Change. As Albert Einstein intoned: “No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.” We need to rise above; we need to step up to another way of being.

The simple three words Love your enemies could not be more radical. In its simplicity it is clear. To make it even more clear, the noun enemy in the Greek is literal “those you hate.” It is not the ones over there across an ocean we wage war with, it is the ones who are near to us that we find contemptible, that we despise, that we hate. The call of God is for us to start where we are and grow the Kingdom where it hurts the most, where it is most real. And how do we love our Hated Ones? Think about what you really want from them, and give them that. It is so hard. It is painful. It is real.

We remember the Saints of God, the holy ones. And we are the Saints, and the Sinners. We all have fallen short of the Glory of God (Romans 3:23), but we are also the Redeemed in Christ. We are walking contradictions, so how apt that Jesus teach us to contradict our very nature. Love those you Hate. He not only instructs it, he enables it. He paints an image so clear in his life and actions, and then sends the Holy Spirit to indwell and strengthen us to do this simple, impossible, remarkable thing. And he also gave us each other so that we are not trying to do it all on our own.

On this day, All Saints’ Day (Observed), we remember those who led us down this path, who modeled for us the Way of Grace and Peace. I think of those who led me, guided me, corrected me, and loved me through all of it, who are no longer with us. Most of us can think on the saints in our lives who stay with us and with whom we are still close despite the chasm of death between us. Could be a parent, a minister, a mentor, a beloved Sunday School  teacher, coach, or Scout Master. There are those whose very being made us better people. They probably were not flashy, nor remembered widely. They so intensely poured themselves in the lives of those around them that they probably were not remembered by the world at large. And that’s okay. That is the way they would want it.

I am who I am because of the Saints who loved me into the Kingdom. Many of you were shaped by this community, this fellowship, and you continue in your faith walk here and you will as long as you can. I and many others are here as part of our sojourn and are here for a few seasons coming from other fields, and perhaps on to others when God calls. I thank God that we are all here together to be the Episcopal branch of Jesus’ movement and work in Ashland and Hanover County.

Today it is so appropriate that we uphold the Saints of God and we gather in our harvest of blessings for the coming year. Our greatest resource is not money, though we have been blessed with so much. Our greatest resource is not our facility, as wonderful as it is and as much of a blessing as it is to so many. Some of our dear Saints’ mortal remains are even in the soil just feet from us, and will be a part of our community as long as we are here. Our greatest resource is not our heritage, though is stretches back a century and a half and it is beautiful to behold.

Over 150 years ago, faith sprang up here in Ashland. Many of our churches shared a building with the Masons till we were able to branch out on our own. Like the creek directly behind me. It has been dry a lot lately, but it flows down to become the Stony Run, which meets up with Lickinghole Creek, which soon becomes the begin of the Chickahominy River. That meanders down making swamps and eventually the reservoir at Walker’s Dam before it flows into the mighty James River, which birthed this nation. The James comes into the Hampton Roads, connecting it to the gift of God’s Nature, the Chesapeake Bay. The Bay is a wonder of life and beauty. And the bay opens to the Atlantic Ocean which connects us to the rest of the world. 

It may not seem that we make a big difference, just a drop in the bucket at times. But the stream across the way is where it begins. And no one doubts the outcome. But what we do here connects around the globe with our brothers and sisters who strive to live the faith where they are. Last night I made a video with my phone to connect with our brothers and sisters in Liverpool at St. Gabriel's Church, Church of England. The Rev. Canon Malcolm Rogers is their Vicar, and today is there 125 Anniversary. They are our younger cousins. But their stream flows into the Mersey, which meets us in the Atlantic. And together St. Gabriel’s and St. James the Less reach the world.

All Saints’ Day and our giving both work the same way. We are just a drop in the Ocean, but never forget, NEVER FORGET, an Ocean is nothing but a gathering of drops. Together we can and will do mighty things. And if God is in it, it cannot be stopped.

Now before the stream analogy I named a lot of things which are not our greatest resource. But waht is? Brothers and Sisters in Christ, our greatest resource is one another, and whose we are in Christ Jesus. As we model faith, hope, and love, especially for one another, there is nothing and no one who can stand against us. Look to your left. Thank God for them. Look to your right, bless them. We are our greatest Treasure. We are our greatest Hope. How we love one another is our Future. And our future is bright, thanks be to God.

Good morning, Sinners. [wait]
Good morning, Saints. [wait] Amen

Sunday, October 27, 2019

Year C Proper 25 2019 Sola Fide

Year C Proper 25, 27 October 2019
St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA
“Sola Fide” 

Collect: Almighty and everlasting God, increase in us the gifts of faith, hope, and charity; and, that we may obtain what you promise, make us love what you command; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Luke 18:9-14
Jesus told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

In seminary, there is always a class that people need to take. It could be called Homiletics, or just Preaching. Whatever the title it is, it is about taking the myriad of ideas possible from our readings (whether we select them in the free church tradition or the lectionary in a more liturgical approach) and speaking to the people of God the Word of God. At our sister church, Shiloh Baptist, there is a wonderful mat at the pulpit that declares, “Preach so they’ll see Jesus.” I think that is most of Homiletics in a nutshell.

When I was in seminary, my “graded” sermon was on this passage. I know it very well. I have preached on this probably more than any other passage in my preaching career. I got a good grade on it, and poor Stephanie has heard my sermon on this 20 or 30 times. When in Seminary, one way to make some living money was to take preaching opportunities, mostly in rural areas, as they became available. And being busy with classes and part-time jobs, having a decent sermon I could pull out helped a lot.

I could do most of that sermon today, but I won’t. As I shared last week, I read Scripture so that it will read me, and I am so different from the young man who preached on this 25 years ago. Very different. (THANKS BE TO GOD!) In that sermon, the sermon was on the story. How the Pharisee would have been assumed to be the good and righteous one, and that the tax collector would have obviously been the cautionary tale, but the Gospel has done its work and our assumptions have reversed after 2,000 years. But when I read it now, much like last week, I look to Jesus and his intended audience as where my heart leads this week.

Last week, Jesus’ intent for the parable was to remind us to “pray always and to not lose heart.” This week we see it directed in very different way. Last week was on hope. This week asks us directly what exactly are we putting our hope in? Too many of us trust in our ability to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and take care of ourselves, particularly in regards to our spiritual life. Jesus points his parable to “some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.”

The parable speaks clearly that the one who was doing everything right could not have been more wrong. And the one who was doing everything wrong, with his humility, honesty, and attitude was made right. It is not in the doing, it is found in the faith. 

We are told that in his faith, Abraham was found to be righteous. It states it explicitly in Genesis, Romans, Galatians, and James. It is not about the actions, but the attitude. It is not about the laundry list of goodness, but the gratitude.

So often, especially as USAmericans, we want to use the active voice. I run. I pray. I act. I work. But there is no active voice here. We are the recipients of the action. I was run to. I was prayed for. I was acted upon. I was recreated. We are the recipients of the work of God in Christ. We are the indirect objects of Grace. That is why Jesus said of the Tax Collector: “I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” 

The Tax Collector knew he was not righteous, yet he was exalted. He knew he could not act on his own. His prayer, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”

There is hardly a man in history who knew better this idea of faith alone, Sola Fide, more than Martin Luther. In fact today is Reformation Sunday in much of the Protestant Church, and Martin Luther’s story of realizing that he could not make it on his own transformed him. Stuck on reading Romans, he wrestled mightily with Paul’s repeatedly coming back to the idea of our faith is where our righteousness comes from. It is said that before Luther was able to grasp this he drove his confessor crazy. He would go into confession, and before he walked a block, he had had another sinful thought which drove him back to the confessional booth. He knew it was not what God would have for us. And then he was able to receive Grace by faith in Christ. Not through acts of Penance or Piety. That was not and will never be enough. Grace by Faith was an epiphany. It was a revelation. It was the turning point in his life. He wrote: “When I discovered that, I was born again of the Holy Ghost. And the doors of paradise swung open, and I walked through.”

I think of the Pharisee, who by his accounting had everything and had no need for anything. He was justified in himself, and he was justified by himself alone. He looked around, and once again, by his accounting he was doing so much better than anyone else, especially by his own standards. He even had the audacity in his prayers to thank God that he is not like these thieves, rogues, adulterers, or especially like this tax collector over here. Luther had been a lot like the Pharisee, and finally, in coming like the Tax Collector to this idea of righteousness by faith, he knew that one of these approaches had to go. And 500 years later we are still sharing the Good News he found. Thanks be to God. It was hidden in plain sight throughout the Scriptures.

Now according to our planning, this is our Stewardship Season, and this is my Stewardship sermon. When I first saw that this was the text, I could not think of a way to ram Stewardship into this. But that is if I only thought about Stewardship being about money. And Stewardship is not about money. Stewardship is about being FAITHFUL, and this text is all about FAITH!

Faith is acting on our beliefs. I could believe any sort of thing, but without acting on it my supposed faith means nothing.

The Pharisee had faith in himself, that he could and would do the right thing, and has always done the right thing. The Tax Collector had faith in God, throwing himself on God’s love and mercy.

Stewardship is an act of faith. A statement of faith that all we have comes from God and is God’s. And God asks us to trust that of all that has been entrusted to our care is enough and that we can give a portion back. The biblical amount is a tenth of our produce. In farming times that was our actual crops. In these days it is our money. And it is not about an amount or a percentage, but about the faith that goes into it. We still teach the biblical tithe, 10%, as our aim.

In regards to our giving, if it is something you will not miss, it is not stepping out on faith. Now some faith communities have set levels, and you have to get a share or that level to be an active participant in the faith community. We do our process even by faith. We step out with a budget naming amounts before the pledges come in. We trust that the people of this community will respond in faith to what God is doing and where we are going. There is always some adjusting, but this community is very faithful and has been.

Next Sunday, November 3, is our ingathering and we will be blessing all the pledges that have come in and will be coming in that day. We will feast, or have a lunch anyway, in celebration of all that God has done for us and in response to what God is doing.  

Now a word of caution in this whole conversation. We do not give to gain God’s notice, nor do we give or work or believe to win God’s favor. If we do that, then we are no better than the Pharisee. In his list of accomplishments he said, “I give a tenth of all my income.” It was about Works and not about Grace. 

But neither is there inaction. If the Tax Collector who has been justified in his Faith by “leaning on the everlasting arms,” does not go home and start acting differently then it does not matter at all. Faith is what justifies, not works. It is not by works he is saved, but what we do is the result of the faith we have. Faith bears fruit, and fruit is the outcome of our faith. As Martin Luther said, “We are saved by faith alone, but the faith is never alone.”

We are a people of Faith, and because of our faith we sing, we pray, we disciple people of all ages in our programming, we have a free medical and dental clinic, we have a food pantry, we host a Stew, Brew, and Blue Grass Fest for the hundreds that are heading our way in a few weeks. We do this not for the outcome, but these outcomes are the response to the faith we have. “We are saved by faith alone, but the faith is never alone.” 

And our giving to the Church is the same. It is a thank you, a statement of hope and faith, a declaration of abundance, a humility in abundance. This week as you prepare your pledges to God, realistically think on what you have given this year, and what you can potentially give next year. Be realistic, but be faithful. What is one percent more? Are you working toward a tithe? Our giving units went down last year for many reasons, but what was so moving for me what that our giving amounts went up.

I give to this Church because I believe in who we are and where we are going. I believe God has brought us together “for such a time as this.” (Esther) I believe that we will shine the Light of God we have received and people will see our “good works and glorify our Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:16) And I can say I believe all day, but it is when I prove those beliefs by acting on them that my belief becomes real and is shown to be faith. 

Sola Fide! BY FAITH ALONE! Amen

Sunday, October 20, 2019

Year C Proper 24 2019 Always, and With Heart

Year C Proper 24, 20 October 2019
St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA
“Always, and with Heart”

Collect: Almighty and everlasting God, in Christ you have revealed your glory among the nations: Preserve the works of your mercy, that your Church throughout the world may persevere with steadfast faith in the confession of your Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Jeremiah 31:27-34
The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will sow the house of Israel and the house of Judah with the seed of humans and the seed of animals. And just as I have watched over them to pluck up and break down, to overthrow, destroy, and bring evil, so I will watch over them to build and to plant, says the Lord. In those days they shall no longer say:
"The parents have eaten sour grapes,
and the children's teeth are set on edge."
But all shall die for their own sins; the teeth of everyone who eats sour grapes shall be set on edge.

The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt-- a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, "Know the Lord," for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.

Luke 18:1-8
Jesus told his disciples a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. He said, "In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, `Grant me justice against my opponent.' For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, `Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.'" And the Lord said, "Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?"

Jesus loves us, wants what is best for us, celebrates our joys, grieves our sorrows, and will be with us through whatever this life may throw at us. Hold that. Claim it. It does not make the bad go away. Lazarus died and Jesus wept. Nor does God want you rich and prosperous. But God wants us to be faithful and in relationship, we are given today’s story very clearly to show us our “need to pray always and not to lose heart.” And it says as much. 

Pray changes us for things more than it changes things for us. I know godly people who suffer deeply, who go through the trials of Job and still find the ability to praise God. And like the unjust judge, I have met some who “neither [fear] God nor [have] respect for people.” This is a cautionary tale. DO NOT BE LIKE THIS JUDGE. And also, GOD IS NOT LIKE THIS JUDGE.

Prayer is a practice and prayer is an art. Prayer is when communicate with God. As simple as a “Wow!” at a sunset, or a “Why?” at a tragedy. And just as much it is a silence, a time to listen. Communication is a two-way street. We need to be heard, and we need to hear. Prayer is making time for both.

Interesting fact. The only character in all the Monty Python films? Do you know? God. And in the Holy Grail, God says very clearly to stop our sniveling! God does not want our drivel, but God wants our authentic real selves. Like the widow in the story demanding justice, even an unjust judge will pay attention just to get her quiet. God is not like the judge, but we should be like the widow. 

If it is on your heart, if it is on your mind, if it weighs on your soul, give it to God in prayer. One of the greatest strengths we have as the people of God is that we can take it, WHATEVER IT IS, to God in prayer. And as a group, we do not have a Book of Common Service, nor do we have a Book of Common Attitude, nor do we have a Book of Common Whatever. As Episcopalians we have a Book of Common Prayer. It is the hallmark of our faith, our approach, and our understanding of following Jesus.  One reason why we can absorb and include people from so many backgrounds is for this very reason. Baptists pray. Catholics pray. Presbyterians pray. Pentecostals pray. When we gather with so many from around Ashland here on November 4 it will be to pray. We are calling on our community to pray. 

We pray together. You probably have heard the cliche, “The family that prays together stays together.” My hope for this place, this space, this fellowship, your homes and families, and for you personally, is that the hallmark of who we are as a people is that we are a people of prayer. And Jesus says we are to pray always and not lose heart. 

The word we have for having heart might be a surprise for you. We often tie it to other things. It comes from the Latin through French, COURAGE. The French Coeur, from the Latin Cor. Courage may seem to be about bravery, but what is bravery, but getting back up when we are knocked down and taking the next step even though we walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Death. May our blood keep pumping and may we never stop moving forward, especially when the days are hard and evidence points away from faith.

There are times and places when we are called to go where we do not want to go, to do what we do not want to do. That tends to be the times when I am in direct and constant connection to God in prayer. In my mind and heart, the pleas do not cease. It is a constant stream. But that comes from a place of training.

One of my music professors in college talked about his day. He started his days with playing scales on his instrument for about 45 minutes. Daily. After decades you would think that he knew how to play scales. That is a beginner activity. But he explained it. By playing scales daily, his body and his instrument became one. When he looked at a hard and impossible (seemingly) piece of music, he asked “How can I play this? What is my approach?” I would look at it and say, “That’s impossible.” But because it had become so much a part of who he was and what he did, impossible was not even on the radar. His identity was in his horn.

Our prayers are much like that. I read the Bible daily not because I do not know it. I read it so it will read me. I have changed, much of that because it has changed me, and in so doing it reads me differently and so I read it differently. My prayers are the same. I bring who I am to God and God starts tinkering. 

Why think of prayer too often like a Vending Machine, or on On/Off switch. Yes. No. Put in a prayer, get out a reward. 

Pray is more for me like a sound board, and our prayers are like our Sound Check, our daily Sound Check where God can hear us, where we are and what we are dealing with, and then God starts working the board, a little more here, a little less there. Subtlety, nuance, always taking what we offer and make it better.

But how do we get to that place? 

Time. Day in, day out. Time with God. How can a relationship survive when no time or energy is given? God speaking to us through Scripture, prayer, meditation. Our spending time with God throughout our days.

A phrase that grates my nerves is “Quality Time.” It is even more disturbing because it is how we deal with our kids. Quality Time only happens through Quantity Time, the special moments only happen in the In-Between. We cannot schedule them, plan them, or create them. They happen when the planets unknowingly align. And just like with our kids, we never know when our Quality Time, our Mountaintop Moment, with our Father in heaven might happen. It only is available in the day in, day out magic of discipline and time. My music professor accomplished amazing feats on his horn because he made it a part of who he was and he found his identity in it.

Like my professor, a story is told of a maestro playing Carnegie Hall. After a prolonged standing ovation, the maestro left the stage with the thunderous applause still echoing. A fan, backstage, approaches the maestro and says, “I would give my life to play like you!” Surprised and taken aback, the maestro responds, “Oh, but I have!”

Jesus tells us this story to show us our “need to pray always and not to lose heart.” Even in closing he brings it back to that. “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

Jesus is getting to the fulfillment of that prophecy we read from Jeremiah. If we are still having to ask about right and wrong, we have not made God’s ways a part of us, of who we are. Like my professor and his trumpet, it has become an extension of who he is. Through his breath, that trumpet becomes a living, breathing thing. No accident that wind and breath and spirit are all the same word in both Hebrew and Greek. God is wanting for us to be so intimately connected to God’s ways that it is not something we do, it is our identity, an extension of who we were born to be…
The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt-- a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.
So often we are told that goal in life is to find out who we are. More and more I am seeing that the only way for me to do that is for me to seek the answer through that question by knowing first whose I am. I find my identity, meaning, purpose, and future in this relationship I have with the one who made me, the one who knows my highest and best, and guides me in right paths for God’s name’s sake. God’s law, written on my heart, enables and empowers me through thick and thin, the highs and lows, and will lead me, I trust, safely home. Amen.

Sunday, October 13, 2019

Year C Proper 23 2019 Faithful Trajectories

Year C Proper 23, 13 October 2019
St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA
“Faithful Trajectories”

Collect: Lord, we pray that your grace may always precede and follow us, that we may continually be given to good works; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7
These are the words of the letter that the prophet Jeremiah sent from Jerusalem to the remaining elders among the exiles, and to the priests, the prophets, and all the people, whom Nebuchadnezzar had taken into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon.
Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.

2 Timothy 2:8-15
A portion of today’s reading: "Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, a descendant of David-- that is my gospel, for which I suffer hardship, even to the point of being chained like a criminal. But the word of God is not chained. Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect, so that they may also obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus, with eternal glory..."

Luke 17:11-19
On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, they called out, saying, "Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!" When he saw them, he said to them, "Go and show yourselves to the priests." And as they went, they were made clean. Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. He prostrated himself at Jesus' feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. Then Jesus asked, "Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?" Then he said to him, "Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well."

If I asked each and every one of you what would be good news to you, I would probably get as many answers as there are people. Plus a few more for those who could not make up their mind.

God knows us. God knows the number of hairs on our heads, so God definitely knows our needs and our wants. In that I have no doubt. 

When someone hands me a hot dog, they probably know I need mustard. If someone gives me a sandwich, they probably know I need something to drink with it. When times are good, what is good is predictable. What we need is predictable. 

When I waited tables I needed to anticipate the guests’ needs before they had them, and when I did, I got great tips. They thought I was a mind-reader at times, when I did it well. Sometimes my tips showed that I did not. Good News for someone for whom things are going great is to let the good times roll. Keep on keeping on.

But today we are given some images of when times are dark, when things are going badly, and where is the Good News then? When we are in the middle of the storms of life, too often we have no idea which direction to head. We have no clue where to start, or what to ask for when we get help. But in all our stories, we see God knows! Some days, God only knows where the Good News is. In each of the portraits painted of following God in dark times from today’s readings, we see God knows the needs and paves the path for them to be made real.

I love the reading from Jeremiah. Richard joked with me the other day about having to read the Jeremiah passage at two services in a row, and about how dark they are. And often Jeremiah is exactly that. Judgment. Wrath. Coming Destruction. But when those passages are seen in isolation, it is easy to get a negative view of Jeremiah. But then we get to today’s reading. And Jeremiah is all about having hope.

Babylon had come in and conquered God’s people. They were stripped of their homes and properties. Last week’s Psalm reading was that horrible song calling to have the Babylonian babies smashed on rocks God’s people were so mad and vengeful. (As bad as it was, at least they were honest with God in their prayers. And that is what God wants, in my opinion!)

But what does Jeremiah say to those who have lost everything: family farms, generations of memories, the land God promised to them when they came out of Egypt? We will get to that. 

What made it even more egregious was that they were so tied to the land in their theology they thought that God would only hear their prayers if they drug a bag of dirt with them when they went off into Exile! But the smiting of Psalm 137 and the judgment of much of Jeremiah disperses here in Jeremiah 29. Here, instead of judgment, Jeremiah is saying, “Have Hope! Be Generous! Live Life!” To sum it up, Grow Where You Are Planted. It may sound cliche, but make Lemonade from the Lemons of Life. Or to quote him exactly:
Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.
When things are hard and dark, do not give up on God. In fact one of the bravest and most counter-intuitive acts in Dark Days is too live a life of Faith and Hope.  

It is human nature to avoid change. We think that the status quo is safe, and we cling so closely to what we have Now, then we are not looking to where we are headed. George Burns and Gracie Allen were partners in comedy and in life. When she died in 1964 she is said to have told George to keep living his life. “Don’t put a period where God has put a comma.” Jeremiah is saying that to his contemporaries and to us today. 

  • When things look hopeless, Have Hope. 
  • When we are scared, Fear Not.
  • When we want to call it quits, Trust in God.

Another image from today’s readings, St. Paul says to St. Timothy, “I am in Chains, but the Gospel is NOT!” St. Paul even rejoices that he can share the Gospel and spread the faith. That is his highest and best calling. 

In the Gospel reading, Jesus says to the Lepers, “Go show yourself to the Priest.” Now to show how hopeful that this is, to be declared clean and able to re-enter society, a priest had to make a declaration. And here is a moment of faith over senses. Jesus has not healed them... YET. Jesus says, “Go to the Priest.” And on the way, one of the 10 looks down. In Hope, in Faith, beyond all Common Sense, he looks down and sees that he has been healed. 

That is a huge shift when you have set your mind to a never-ending reality. His was a death sentence, and he had no expectation for it to be anything else, ever. But of all those who were sent to the priest, this one, the single one did NOT DO WHAT JESUS SAID TO DO. He went back to Jesus, he went back to the one who had sent him away. He went back to give thanks, thanks to Jesus and thanks to God!

Jesus knew the way this young Samaritan man needed to go. “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.” Faith is stepping out even when we do not know where our foot will fall. Faith is believing that our footing will be solid even when our path forward is dark.

St. Paul eventually was killed while imprisoned in Rome, but the Gospel he preached kept going, and we are probably here in Church today from the work he did. St. Paul had faith in the God who called and saved him, and in the power of the Gospel to seek and save the Lost.

The Babylonian Exile still was long and hard, but after a few generations God brought them home. Jeremiah’s family was able to come back and claim the land he bought in the previous week’s lectionary reading. And because of that Exile, Synagogues, Hebrew houses of prayer, were begun, and because of that we still have synagogues with us more than 1900 years later after the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed! The Hebrew faith is alive and well to this day. They kept the Faith of the Fathers and Mothers and God honored that.

We are called to have faith, too. When disease and darkness surrounds us, and we cannot imagine the light dawning, know that the God who was with you in the light is with you in the dark. And the light will come. We cannot see how. We may not know why. But he who began this work of you, is faithful to complete it. Now matter what we face, God is with us.

This is hard work I am asking you to do. This is Faith Work. To act in belief of things unseen, to defy what our days and times are screaming at us. “Fear, fear, fear!” But in closing I want to zero in on a sentence we skim over, but I think that that is where the Good News lies for most of us. After Jesus sends the lepers to the priest, it says this: “And as they went, they were made clean.”

In the living of our days, that is where I think our calling lies. It is the stepping out that we find our faith, it is in meeting God over the horizon that we see where God would have us be all along.

In a book I am reading about the Apollo missions to the moon, one of the greatest technical feats that had to be tested, proven, and successful was trying to get two vehicles in space to be able to rendezvous. There are no road signs or rest stops in space. We are trapped in 2-dimensional thinking, living in a world of flat maps and roads. The engineers had to think in 3-dimensional ways, trusting in equations and algorithms to make the impossible happen. You do not want to sit and wait where you are. You cannot. Because whether you feel it or not, in your spaceship you are hurtling ahead, maybe even tens of thousands of miles per hour. So is the ship you are trying to meet up with. So it is pointless spending a lot of time zeroing in on where you are, or where they are. Spend your time and energy on where they are heading, and where you need to head to be where they are going to be. That is the hard-to-envision work of outer space rendezvous. It is aiming two bullets to meet up over the horizon. It is often the same with our faith. 

God is preparing for you to meet up beyond what we can see, beyond what we can comprehend. God has done the math, worked out the trajectories, and what is over there is far better than you could hope or imagine. “And as they went, they were made clean.”

God knew the trajectories of Israel going off into Babylon, how they would come home and flourish and that they would set up a system that would last millennia. God knew the trajectory of St. Paul, and where his work would take the faith, even right here to Beverly Road. And God knew the trajectory of the lepers. 

And what may be Good News for us today, God knows our trajectories, and is preparing even now for what will be. May we have the courage to have Faithful Trajectories, and in so doing shine a light in these days we find ourselves in. Lead Holy Spirit, even into the Depths of God. Amen.

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Year C Proper 22 WED 2019 Go & Learn What This Means

Year C Proper 22 WEDNESDAY, 9 October 2019
St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA
“Go and Learn What This Means”

Collect: Almighty and everlasting God, you are always more ready to hear than we to pray, and to give more than we either desire or deserve: Pour upon us the abundance of your mercy, forgiving us those things of which our conscience is afraid, and giving us those good things for which we are not worthy to ask, except through the merits and mediation of Jesus Christ our Savior; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Matthew 9:9-17
As Jesus was walking along, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth; and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he got up and followed him.
And as he sat at dinner in the house, many tax collectors and sinners came and were sitting with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” But when he heard this, he said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.”
Then the disciples of John came to him, saying, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast often, but your disciples do not fast?” And Jesus said to them, “The wedding guests cannot mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them, can they? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast. No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old cloak, for the patch pulls away from the cloak, and a worse tear is made. Neither is new wine put into old wineskins; otherwise, the skins burst, and the wine is spilled, and the skins are destroyed; but new wine is put into fresh wineskins, and so both are preserved.”

The heart of the thing. That is what Jesus is about. It is not about what we do. It is about how we do it. It is about why we do it. We can speak with the words of the smartest people and or sing with the voice of an angel, but if it is not done in love, it is a banging gong or a clanging cymbal. (I Corinthians 13:1 paraphrased) It is about how and why, not what.

The passage here is about the Calling of Matthew, a tax collector. You may already know that his profession was a surprise for the Righteous (actually self-righteous), because tax collectors were agents with self-serving practices of the despised Roman overlords. And once called, Matthew threw a party for his new Master and his old friends. How scandalous!

Those who considered themselves righteous used this to take aim at Jesus and his apparent hypocrisy. As I was preparing for today, I was caught by Jesus’ turn of phrase in retort: “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’”

And so I did. I pulled out the Greek and decided I would dig and see if there is something lying beneath the surface. The words Mercy and Sacrifice are used almost thirty times each (27 and 29 specifically) so they are not rare. Eleos means “mercy, pity, compassion.” and Thysian means “sacrifice,” noun, not verb. So a blood sacrifice. Or a burnt offering. Mercy, not sacrifice. Wow. As scandalous, and amazing, today as it was then. But wait, there is more. Jesus is quoting here!

Jesus is quoting Hosea 6:6, and making sure that things are translated well, I did the same deep dive into the Hebrew that led to the Greek we have in the New Testament. This is where is gets fascinating. The word we translate as mercy is one of my favorites in the Hebrew scriptures. Hesed is the word used to describe how God relates to us! Sometimes it is described as Mercy. Sometimes it is Covenant Fidelity. True to the promises made to loves us forever. That is Mercy, but so much more. We are called to be like God, merciful, which is so much more than doing our religious rites “just right.” The word Zebah also means sacrifice, a noun, either a burnt offering or a blood sacrifice so that is the same.

This year as we look at the leading and the prompting of the Holy Spirit in our lives and in our Church, we will need to pick up and examine these treasure hidden in plain sight. I have heard this phrase all my life, but now I see it so differently. A word can be so much more if we take the time to “Go and learn what this means…” When Jesus said that to the self-rightous, they would have known the reference. They would have known the implications he was saying. The way to keep covenant with God is not performing the rites and rituals, but to be like God in what we say and do. So Jesus is in effect saying that we should have bleeding hearts instead of giving bloody sacrifices. The nature of God, shown through the actions and teachings of Jesus, repeatedly shows us this.  The Divinity seen in the Crucifixion is in the Passion, the love shown by Jesus, not in the vengeful blood offering demanded by an angry God. What we do is not the issue; it is the How, the Why.

Our devotions, our prayers, our offerings, are not done to get God’s attention or to make ourselves superior or more worthy, but we pray and we worship to get in on the mercy freely given. We drink deep from the stream of Grace. We are blessed to be a blessing. Mercy. Compassion. Hesed. Not offerings. Not sacrifices. And the most liberating part is that we get to “Go and Learn…” it is in the practice of it, in the eventual “turning, turning that we come round right…”Lead us Holy Spirit into the very Depths of God! Amen!

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Year C Proper 21 WED 2019 By Our Fruit

Year A Proper 21 WEDNESDAY, 2 October 2019
St. James the Less Episcopal. Ashland, VA
“By Our Fruit”

Collect: O God, you declare your almighty power chiefly in showing mercy and pity: Grant us the fullness of your grace, that we, running to obtain your promises, may become partakers of your heavenly treasure; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Matthew 7:13-21
“Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.
“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles? In the same way, every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will know them by their fruits.
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.”

We begin looking through the focus of “Lead Holy Spirit Into the Depths of God”-- our new yearly theme. On Wednesdays, we have a little more time to play and unpack some things, to filter things through these ideas.

Jesus warns us that those who try to follow him will not be the crowd. We will have to get off the interstate and take the side route. We will need to avoid the main entrance and come in the service door. There will be large gatherings following false prophets. I saw an online satire article about a certain mega-church pastor who had started a new line of Pastor Suits under the title of “Sheep’s Clothing.” I snorted. Having heard some of this man’s talks, it is hard to call them sermons, I doubt he would catch the reference from today: false prophets are wolves in sheep’s clothing.

Then Jesus talks about us bearing fruit. It is how to know the good tree from the bad. What is its fruit? Bearing fruit is something we all do. But what kind of fruit do we bear?

Here is one of the key things about the life of following Jesus. For too long in my life and leadership in the Church, I have thought the fruit I was trying to bear was outcomes, product, stuff I could point to and say done. (Looking at through the Rohr book Falling Upward, this was not bad but more likely the first half of life.) But more and more I think that our fruit is far more intangible, and all the more necessary.

In Galatians, Paul unpacks the Fruit of the Spirit, and not a one of them is something we do, but rather it is who we are. It is the difference from being an apple farmer and being an apple tree. An apple farmer may produce apples. An apple tree cannot help but make apples. St. Paul gives us two lists in Galatians 5. The works of the flesh, and the fruit of the Spirit. The works of the flesh are things we do, or rather should not do. “Fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these.” [Gal. 5:19b-21a] Notice how many of these are about being divisive. In these divisive times, think on that. If people are working toward Us v. Them, no matter how righteous the cause, be wary.

But when we are the apple tree, when our DNA is structured in such a way for us to bear fruit, what does that look like? “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” It takes a long time and a lot of work to rewrite your DNA. Or as Jesus put it, “For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.”

This year, I trust that the Holy Spirit will lead us together into some deep places. Deep can be scary. Deep can also be awe-inspiring. We drove by the Luck Stone Quarry out in Goochland the other day. I tried to describe it to my kids. I remember going out there on a field trip with my school. Looking into it from the top, HUGE earth-movers at the bottom looked smaller than Hot Wheels cars. It is scary on the rim. But from the bottom looking up, the amount of work to make this inverted mountain, this hole as big as a mountain, was inspiring. It is all about how we view things.

If we are led by the Spirit, the nature and tenor of what we do will be like these fruit of the Spirit. In the midst of what is setting up to be some dark days, (I pray that they will not be but we all can see the clouds forming) living lives led by the Spirit will be all the more required and all the more necessary. May we pray it together, “Lead Holy Spirit, into the Depths of God!” Amen 

Sunday, September 29, 2019

Year C Proper 21 2019 Not Throwing Away My Shot

Year C Proper 21, 29 September 2019
St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA
“Not Throwing Away My Shot”

Collect: O God, you declare your almighty power chiefly in showing mercy and pity: Grant us the fullness of your grace, that we, running to obtain your promises, may become partakers of your heavenly treasure; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Luke 16:19-31
Jesus said, “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man's table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. He called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.’ But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.’ He said, ‘Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father's house-- for I have five brothers-- that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’ Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ He said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”

365 days ago today my wife got me a gift that I will never forget. We went to see Hamiliton in New York City. I had listened to the soundtrack countless times, but I remember the first time I heard the music, one song hit home. My Shot. [by Lin-Manuel Miranda, et al.]
I am not throwing away my shotI am not throwing away my shotYo, I'm just like my countryI'm young, scrappy and hungryAnd I'm not throwing away my shot... 
[My apologies for trying to rap.] But it is true. We get one shot at this life. That is it. A friend who believes in Reincarnation argued that point, but even then, I replied, “No matter what comes after, this is your only chance at this one!” This one precious, fleeting, wonderful life. I learned too early this truth.

At the age of 10 I made a decision to try and live this life without regret. I remember where I was, and what I was doing. And for the most part I have lived my life that way. For good or bad, but with as little regret as I could manage.

One of the founding ideas of our nation is that it is a truth we hold to be self-evident, that each and every one of us was created equal. Now we know that in giftedness, looks, and income that is obviously not true. So how is that self-evident? Opportunity. Life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness. It explains. In other words, Don’t throw away your shot! We each have been given what we have been given, and it is the task of this life to do the best with what we have been given. The shorthand for that is, “You have been blessed to be a blessing.” A pseudonymous quote attributed to John Wesley that our Methodist sisters and brothers cherish puts it like this:
Do all the good you can,
By all the means you can,
In all the ways you can,
In all the places you can,
At all the times you can,
To all the people you can,
As long as ever you can.

Today’s Gospel brings this home so well. At each and every one of our doorsteps is an opportunity to do good. Across each and every one of paths we see a wounded soul. The Rich Man did not think that Lazarus was his problem. The Samaritan whom we call Good was not called to medical missions. But both of them found that God had gifted them with a moment to make the world a little bit better. One saw someone and said, “Not my problem.” One saw someone and knew he was his brother’s keeper.

Our Jewish and Muslim brothers and sisters put it this way, “Whoever saves a life saves the world.”-The Talmud [Or from the Qu’ran: “Whoever saves one life, it is written as if he has saved all humanity.” Same point.] Too often we look at a problem and we hold back because we think, “Why bother, it is just a drop in the bucket!” But friends, what is a bucket, or a puddle, or a lake, or a river, or AN OCEAN if not a gathering of drops. It is not that we see ourselves as too important, but rather we see ourselves as too weak. We are “fearfully and wonderfully made” [Ps. 139:14] and “made a little bit lower than the angels” [Ps 8:5 & Hebrews 2:7]. Our drops are what makes the world go round. The raindrop does not bemoan how little it is, it cries out with the cloud full of raindrops, “Let’s do this!” and a storm is born.

Looking at the Gospel reading for the day, and we see a man of privilege, who has the opportunity to feast daily, finds himself crossed over into eternity to eternal torment. And even then he attempts to remain in his place of privilege.

  • Notice, he does not appeal to Lazarus whom he knew and ignored in life, but rather directly goes to Father Abraham, thinking he has that right… 
  • Notice, he assumes that someone can and will respond to his commands, wishes, and whims still, just like they did in life…
  • Notice, he believes his brothers are deserving of being given another chance… 

Privilege is something that is highlighted more and more into our consciousness. And we will be dealing with that for decades, maybe centuries, and deservedly so. And it has been that way since before Jesus told this story 2,000 years ago.

Now this is a parable, a rabbinical story Jesus retells and reinterprets to make a point. Luke is a master of reminding his reader that Jesus came to pronounce Good News to the poor. And here they receive it. They will not be ignored. Their suffering is not in vain.

In the privileged Rich Man’s life, we learn that he had been warned, and that he should not be surprised by his predicament. At the end of the story, Jesus drops this nugget, “‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ [The Rich Man] said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”

Now as followers of the Resurrected Storyteller, we see a shocking post facto allusion. Jesus being the one who testified after rising from the dead. But he makes it clear, following the Way of God has already been given to us. We have Moses and the prophets. At another place Jesus promises those who follow him:
For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.” From the Sermon on the Mount.” [Matthew 5:18]
And when Jesus told us the greatest commandment, Love God with everything, and your neighbor as yourself. He assures us: “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” [Matthew 22:40] We have been told, and afforded the opportunity to repent. Let them who have ears, let them hear.

We have been told. We have no excuse. The Rich Man, you, me. All of us have been told. C.S. Lewis even accounts our sense of right and wrong, however we define them, to our being molded to be in relationship with God. Without that we could not be accountable to God’s right and wrong. [Mere Christianity]

All that being said, the Rich Man was warned. He did not listen. Father Abraham said that his brothers would not listen, even to someone Resurrected.

That is not the only irony in this story, notice that the man of note, the Rich Man, is not given a name. In older translations, he is called Dives, which is just the Greek form of Rich Man. The person who we would normally name, the “important” person is unnamed, and the beggar is. Lazarus, not to be confused with the friend of Jesus who died and came back in the Gospel of John, Lazarus is the hellenized version of Elazar, meaning “God has helped.” The beggar with open sores being licked by dogs is called “God has helped.” Jesus being a master storyteller, this irony could not have been accidental. His original listeners would have caught it, and it would not have been lost on them.

Change, repentance, metanoia, transforming our mind is something that draws us to Church, but we all know that Change is hard, and some would say, impossible.

When Stephanie and I were in graduate school together, we were told one simple and clear thing. “Past performance is the best indicator of future behavior.” We all can hope and wish and pray for change, but when all is said and done inertia is what rules the day.

Inertia is that term from physics where whatever you are doing you will tend to keep doing unless acted upon by an outside force. At rest, you tend to stay at rest. In motion, you tend to stay in motion. Inertia comes out in how we live our lives, too.

We all fight, buck, or avoid change. Even when we want to change, old habits are hard to break. Try losing weight, or keeping your New Year’s Resolutions. Again, that phrase that they drilled in our heads went this way: “Past performance is the best indicator of future behavior.” Lazy bums tend to be lazy bums. People of action cannot stop being people of action.

Now the point Jesus is telling all of us, though, is that Change is possible. Jesus knew that inertia traps us in the human experience, and in this parable the human soul. Our inertia is something that needs the effect of an outside force. And, I believe, friends, that is what Jesus was and who he is. That outside force that can affect change.

Biblical scholar Robert McLellan said of this story, “God does not equate riches with lasting value. Neither does God equate poverty with faithfulness, for doing so would make God’s grace dependent on human action.” (Robert McLellan, Feasting on the Gospels, Luke Vol. 2)[And therefore no longer Grace.]

But we are given what we are given. Those faithful in the little that they have been given, like Lazarus, and those who have been faithful in a lot, like the Rich Man could have been, that is what we are called to do and who we are called to be.

This is a big day for me. Today is a big day for each of us. Each and every day is a big day for me. Today is the only chance I have to live this day. Every day is once in a lifetime. How I live it is the my shot. Will I take it? Or will I not reach for the brass ring as I go by? I close with the words of the poet Mary Oliver, who passed this year.
The Summer DayWho made the world?Who made the swan, and the black bear?Who made the grasshopper?This grasshopper, I mean-the one who has flung herself out of the grass,the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.I don't know exactly what a prayer is.I do know how to pay attention, how to fall downinto the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,which is what I have been doing all day.Tell me, what else should I have done?Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?Tell me, what is it you plan to dowith your one wild and precious life?—Mary Oliver