Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Year C 7 Epiphany WED 2019 Remembering George Herbert

Year C 7 Epiphany WEDNESDAY, 27 February 2019

St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA

“Remembering George Herbert”

[Adapted from Holy Women, Holy Men]
George Herbert is famous for his poems and his prose work, A Priest in the Temple: or The Country Parson. He is portrayed by his biographer Izaak Walton as a model of the saintly parish priest. Herbert described his poems as “a picture of the many spiritual conflicts that have passed betwixt God and my soul, before I could submit mine to the will of Jesus my Master; in whose service I have found perfect freedom.”

Herbert was born in 1593, a member of an ancient family, a cousin of the Earl of Pembroke, and acquainted with King James I and Prince (later King) Charles. Through his official position as Public Orator of Cambridge, he was brought into contact with the Court. Whatever hopes he may have had as a courtier were dimmed, however, because of his associations with persons who were out of favor with King Charles I—principally John Williams, Bishop of Lincoln.

Herbert had begun studying divinity in his early twenties, and in 1626 he took Holy Orders. King Charles provided him with a living as rector of the parishes of Fugglestone and Bemerton in 1630. His collection of poems, The Temple, was given to his friend, Nicholas Ferrar, and published posthumously.

His version of Psalm 23:

The God of love my shepherd is,
And he that doth me feed:
While he is mine, and I am his,
What can I want or need?  
He leads me to the tender grasse,
Where I both feed and rest;
Then to the streams that gently passe:
In both I have the best.  
Or if I stray, he doth convert
And bring my minde in frame:
And all this not for my desert,
But for his holy name.  
Yea, in deaths shadie black abode
Well may I walk, not fear:
For thou art with me; and thy rod
To guide, thy staff to bear.  
Nay, thou dost make me sit and dine,
Ev’n in my enemies sight:
My head with oyl, my cup with wine
Runnes over day and night.  
Surely thy sweet and wondrous love
Shall measure all my dayes;
And as it never shall remove,
So neither shall my praise.

Herbert was unselfish in his devotion and service to others. Izaak Walton writes that many of the parishioners “let their plow rest when Mr. Herbert’s saints-bell rung to prayers, that they might also offer their devotion to God with him.” His words, “Nothing is little in God’s service,” have reminded Christians again and again that everything in daily life, small or great, may be a means of serving and worshiping God.

In closing today, let’s read the text of Hymn 592, “Teach me, my God and King.”

1 Teach me, my God and King, in all things
Thee to see, and what I do in anything, to do it as for Thee.  
2 To scorn the senses’ sway, while still to Thee I tend;
in all I do be Thou the Way, in all be Thou the End.  
3 All may of Thee partake; nothing so small can be,
but draws, when acted for Thy sake, greatness and worth from Thee.  
4 If done t'obey Thy laws, e’en servile labors shine;
hallowed is toil, if this the cause, the meanest work divine.

“Nothing is little in God’s service.” May we always remember that. Amen

Sunday, February 24, 2019

Year C 7 Epiphany 2019 Hard Words

Year C 7 Epiphany, 24 February 2019 
St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA 
“Hard Words” 

Collect: O Lord, you have taught us that without love whatever we do is worth nothing: Send your Holy Spirit and pour into our hearts your greatest gift, which is love, the true bond of peace and of all virtue, without which whoever lives is accounted dead before you. Grant this for the sake of your only Son Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen. 

Luke 6:27-38 Jesus said, “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.  “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.  “Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.” 

[Note: today is Middle School Sunday and I am only preach at the 8 a.m. service so this is a bit shorter than the norm.]

There are some times when things are better left unsaid. This is not one of those times. Some days I wish Jesus did not have these teachings. These are hard. They almost seem impossible. 

In describing people who try and live these out, we often tend to call them saints, or people trying to be saints, and we would not include ourselves in these discussions. We want to hear, and not to obey. We want to nod our tacit approval without changing our attitudes or actions. 

We want to hear Jesus metaphorically, like plucking out our eye, or chopping off our hand. But, here, I would argue, Jesus is unquestionably, undeniably, terrifyingly Literal. “Love your enemies.” He even says it twice in this passage. He probably had to so no one would have the excuse of saying, “Pardon me, I missed that.” 

Jesus teaches here the Radical Grace which has come to be the hallmark of the Christian Faith. And it is when we miss getting the message here we are less than the Church of Christ, and not worthy to be called his disciples.  

Hard words? No harder than Jesus’. He calls us beyond our better selves to beyond our best selves to Christlikeness. Remember, Christ shows us what God is like. That is the miracle of the incarnation. These teachings were the foundation of the very nature of God. It enables us to reframe our world and lives we lead. 

When I was a middle school teacher I cannot tell you how many conversations I had with kids who had just gotten into a verbal or physical mix-up with another kid. Now the one who hit or started bad talking were often in trouble, and I had a kid in front of me who wanted to “get them back.” They wanted to do to them as they had been done unto. It is what this world teaches. But we are called to be not of this world. 

I would invite the injured party, this child, to be the bigger person. I would ask them to see their way when they have to interact with this person to be bigger than the other person. At least in the inside. They needed to stand taller, and know that they are bigger and better than whatever it is they encounter. 

Now if we were asked to love our enemies, turn the other cheek, and give all that we have, while operating on our own power and authority it would not be possible. We could not do it on our own. We are not all-powerful. We are not almighty. We have limited resources and need to “take care of ourselves.” 

But let’s think of this another way. There is an old joke that goes, what does a 500 lb. gorilla do when it walks in a room? Whatever it wants.  

While you are not a 500 pound gorilla, God is bigger than any and everything. In fact, you plus God is bigger than ANY and EVERY THING. And remember the gorilla gets to do whatever he wants. And what does God want for us? Love your enemies. Turn the other cheek. Give what we have.  

Jesus said it better than me: “But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.” 

I am being asked by Christ, YOU are being asked by Christ, to be the bigger person. You are being asked to be LIKE HIM in YOUR situation.  

I know that this is not easy, and as I started, these are hard words. As Mark Twain said, “It ain’t those parts of the Bible I can’t understand that bother me, it is that parts that I do understand.” Jesus’ words are very clear, most of them monosyllabic. He calls us as his children to be like him. “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.” 

When my daughter was young, probably about three, she did something she should not have done. I corrected her. She was angry about it. She stood in front of me while I sat on the sofa so I was lower down and could look her in the eye. She got red in the face and started shaking. And then she blurted out, “I hate you!” In that split second, she had declared herself my enemy. But was she my enemy? Were we opposed? 

No. In that moment, I saw her for who she was. She was a frustrated, angry, embarrassed child. She was angry for being in trouble, and she redirected it at me. In that moment, however brief, she thought she hated me. I do not remember what I said next, maybe nothing. But I did not lash back. I did not strike. And I watched as my beloved daughter burst into tears and wilted. And I picked her up, put her on my lap, and let her cry. My enemy? No. My beloved daughter. 

If we treated all our situations of conflict as a chance to be loving, firm, but done in a spirit and approach of love, think of how much better the world would be. Think of how Christlike we could be. And remember, we are not alone. Something better than a 500 pound gorilla has our back. 
In my research for this morning, I found this line from Fred Craddock. “God is full of Grace, and the final work of Grace is to make us gracious, too.” Amen 

Sunday, February 17, 2019

Year C 6 Epiphany 2019 Misplaced Trust

Year C 6 Epiphany, 17 February 2019 
St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA 
“Misplaced Trust” 

Collect: O God, the strength of all who put their trust in you: Mercifully accept our prayers; and because in our weakness we can do nothing good without you, give us the help of your grace, that in keeping your commandments we may please you both in will and deed; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. 

Luke 6:17-26 Jesus came down with the twelve apostles and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon. They had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases; and those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured. And all in the crowd were trying to touch him, for power came out from him and healed all of them. Then he 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." 

There are certain points in my ministry when things could have gone better. Last week I spoke of my failures, and how I am even thankful for them. They drew me closer to God & God’s Grace. But sometimes, even when I have a huge failure, the Holy Spirit shows up to snatch a victory from the jaws of defeat. 

When I used to work at a camp for inner-city Richmond kids, we had an evening program one time that I will never forget. Several of us had been in Boy Scouts, and at Scout Camps we often had several elaborate evening programs. In an Order of the Arrow ceremony, a few of us had seen someone call down fire from heaven. As we were reminiscing, I thought how cool it would be to do the same stunt, but just to do it around the story of Elijah and the Prophets of Baal from the Old Testament. 

Now if you remember the story, Elijah had prophesied for God to the evil King Ahab and Queen Jezebel. They were Baal worshipers and Elijah said that it would not rain for three years. After the three years passed, he called for a showdown on Mount Carmel which juts out in the Mediterranean. Like here, most weather moves west to east. As folks arrived, Elijah told them to set up an altar to Baal and he would make one to the Lord. The prophets called on their idol to deliver rain after lighting their altar, and Elijah waited. After hours he taunted them, and still no rain. Elijah said to them to finally quit. He had his altar covered with water until it was thoroughly soaked to prove that no trick was possible. He then prayed to God, and a fireball came down from heaven lighting his altar. Then a cloud, shaped like a hand, came from over the Mediterranean and it began to rain. It dumped. It poured. And Queen Jezebel swore revenge on Elijah. 

Now in our version, we were going to redo the story, just without the rain part. We had a guy up in a tree. There was a wire stretched from the top to a stone altar we had built from creek stones, and in it there was a bucket of kerosene. Strung on the wire we had a roll of toilet paper, soaked in kerosene, that we would light and zip down the wire and land in the bucket of kerosene, and joila! A fireball from heaven to light our altar. Tada! 

Well, we really got into it. We had screaming and yelling prophets of Baal. A mean ol’ Ahab. A shrieking harpy of a Jezebel. And I got to play Elijah. We went through the story, and like most camp productions, everyone played it huge and cheesy. There is a reason they call things like that “campy.” The prophets were dancing and calling for fire. Jezebel swore my death. And when I got up to call upon God, I was mid-prayer when I hear a hum on the wire and plop. Landing next to me was the unlit roll of toilet paper plopping down right into the bucket, 30 seconds too early. No fire from heaven. No climax to the show. And no backup roll of toilet paper. 

And to top everything off, the woman playing Jezebel got too into her part, and after we had disappointed a camp full of children she calls out, “Where’s your God now, Elijah!” 

It was awful. We had tried too hard to get these kids to see this great Bible story, and grow their faith in God. We had trusted in ourselves and our ingenuity. We moved them all from the fire pit, and into the Big Lodge to sing some songs and redirect them as best we could after our Flop, or Plop rather. Either way it was a bust. 

We put our hope on special effects and showing off. And maybe pointing the kids to God. 

Where do you put your hope? 

Really, when it comes down to it, where do you place that most sacred of trusts, our hope? 

Your mom and dad? Your spouse? That the sun will come up in the morning? That you will get a good night’s sleep? 

I was talking with someone the other day, and he asked how things are going here. I asked, on what level. On the surface things are going well. We had a great business meeting last week. People are serving God in so many wonderful and beautiful ways. But I have been here just long enough for people to start trusting me. I am a known entity now, and the burdens that they have been carrying alone for too long are starting to surface. I told my friend that this was actually a good sign, the rocks are being picked up and the creepy crawlies are getting exposed to the light. We can actually deal with the important things, the worrisome things, the things that nudge us in the dark of the night and make us doubt that the dawn will never come. So keep coming in, keep letting me know. I am your priest. We all need a priest.  

In the movie Schindler’s List, we see the main character Oskar Schindler say: “My father was fond of saying you need three things in life - a good doctor, a forgiving priest, and a clever accountant. The first two, I've never had much use for.” Schindler put his hope in Itzhak Stern his accountant. 

So I ask it again, where is your hope? 

This week I got another wake-up call as to how important and imperative our work with our fellow Ashland clergy is, especially our relationship with Shiloh Baptist and Randell Williams, their pastor. He texted me a story from the Richmond Times-Dispatch whose headline read “KKK Flyers Found On Private Property in Ashland, Hanover.” He sent it to me and other ministers here in Ashland because who knows us; he trusts us; and, he has hope that we will have his back and look out for his flock. He is right. Hate triumphs when good people stay silent. We denounce this ridiculousness because it is against our neighbors, it is against our better selves, and it is unquestionably against the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We been invited to a joint service on February 27, 7 pm, at Duncan Memorial to emphasize what we are really about. We will not give room to hate, and we will proclaim the freedom we have in Christ and we will not give into the fear the KKK so wants to produce. 

SO, it begs the question again, where do you put your trust? Today’s Scripture pound it home. Jeremiah: “Cursed are those who trust in mere mortals and make mere flesh their strength, whose hearts turn away from the Lord.” And, “Blessed are those who trust in the Lord, whose trust is the Lord.” 

From Psalm 1: “Happy are they who have not walked in the counsel of the wicked, nor lingered in the way of sinners, nor sat in the seats of the scornful! Their delight is in the law of the Lord, and they meditate on his law day and night.” 

What we need to do could not be more clear than the Beatitudes listed from Luke in today’s Gospel reading, or Matthew’s Gospel either. 

Now let me repeat my thoughts on the Beatitudes. It is crazy talk to say that the Poor are blessed, or the Hungry, or those that Weep. The Persecuted, no one wants to volunteer for that. How on earth can they be blessed? I have heard it said that the Beatitudes were a list of ideals to be kept. But that would be ridiculous, if we are intellectually honest. God does not want you Poor, Hungry, Weeping, or Persecuted. 

But neither does God want you Rich, Fat, and Comfortable as the folks who preach the Prosperity Gospel proclaim. So what is it? When we filter this through our original question, these all seem so different. We see our Hope is found in God. When we are Poor, look to God. When we are Hungry, look to God. When we are Weeping, God. When we are Persecuted, keep holding on to God. And when we get to the Woes, the Rich, the Full, the Pleasure-seeking Laughers, and the Popular stop looking to God and put their trust in the ephemeral and fleeting: money, comfort, frivolity, and fame. Woe to them that think they have arrived. God is calling us all, higher, deeper, into a more full relationship. 

To finish the story about the Elijah skit, we took the kids back from the campfire ring and into the Lodge. I wanted to hurt the guy that was up the tree for his ill-timed accident, but knew he was humiliated and had an accident. Nothing more, nothing less. I could have killed the woman playing Jezebel who said, “Where’s your God now, Elijah?!?” But she was trying to think on her feet, and was enjoying her role WAY TOO MUCH. 

In the 50 yards of walking I had to come up with what I was going to say. What could I say to redeem this? Where could we go? My policy is to be honest. And when things are hard, be VERY HONEST. I told the kids the truth. We had tried and put on a show for them, telling them to trust in God. We had fire, planned fire anyway. Funny actors, and a great story. And I told them the truth, if you put your trust in people, eventually, somewhere along the way they will disappoint you. Always. People are not perfect. Trust people. Hope for the best. But there is only one place where we will not be disappointed if we put our trust, and that place is with God. For me the proof of that was that somehow the Holy Spirit spoke through fallible, disappointed me, and said exactly what was needed to be heard once I got out of the way. And really was the point of the story, BOTH in real life and in our retelling. 

It was true that night 27 years ago. It is true today. We can trust in God. Our hope is not lost there. Ever. Especially when we have people mocking us and saying, “Where’s your God now?!?”  

“Blessed are those who trust in the Lord, whose trust is the Lord.”Amen.