Sunday, March 24, 2019

Year C Lent 3 2019 The Gardener Knows Best

Year C Lent 3, 24 March 2019
St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA
“The Gardener Knows Best”


Collect: Almighty God, you know that we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves: Keep us both outwardly in our bodies and inwardly in our souls, that we may be defended from all adversities which may happen to the body, and from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Luke 13:1-9

At that very time there were some present who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. He asked them, "Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them--do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did."


Then he told this parable: "A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, 'See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?' He replied, 'Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.'"

Why do bad things happen? Why do they, really? If God is all-powerful, then why does God allow suffering and misery? Does it mean that God is not all-powerful, as Rabbi Kushner argues? (In Why Do Bad Things Happen to Good People?) Or is it that God is not all-good? Archibald MacLeish in his Pulitzer Prize winning play J.B. said, “If God is God, he is not good. If God is good, he is not God.” Or is it something else entirely? These are hard and age-old questions.

From our earliest days as humans, we think that God works like we do, and the tit-for-tat, transactional lives we have on this plain of existence is too often how we perceive the workings of God. Some of the oldest portions of our Scriptures according to scholars come from the Book of Job. There a righteous man is assaulted by the enemy (of himself and God) and made to suffer. A string of calamities happen. He loses his flocks, his children, everything, and all he had was his wife who instructed him to “Curse God and die.” And then his so-called “friends” come asking, “So what did you do to deserve this?”

The assumption always seem to be that we cause our fate. That’s what Job’s friends assumed, and it is what the ones who came to Jesus assumed as well. Jesus cites two calamities and brings a spotlight on them.

At that very time there were some present who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. He asked them, "Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them--do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did."
Pilate, the Roman prefect, was notorious for cruelty. Some event took place where some Galileans had made sacrifices, and they were killed and their blood was mingled with the offerings they had made. Jesus asked, were these any worse than their neighbors? Were they somehow deserving of this, or to blame? He then brings up another recent incident. A tower fell in Jerusalem, killing 18. Were they to blame for this accident? Of course not.

Bad things happen, with intent sometimes like with Pilate. And bad things happen just because, like with the falling tower. To both Jesus gives a phrase, “repent, or you will perish as they did.” Now this is tricky, because it sounds causative. If you do not do this, then this will happen. This bad thing will be the outcome. It may sound like Jesus is saying that. It can be confusing. However, when we look at the whole narrative, and where Jesus goes next it offers us a different way to read it.

Jesus immediately tells them a story of a fig tree. Now what is it we expect of a fig tree? [Wait for a response.] Figs, of course. And in the story we see something not doing what it is meant to do. A fig tree not producing figs is pretty worthless. And here we are given two competing views. What does one do with worthless things?

The man who planted the fig tree says this: “For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?”

This makes total sense. Why waste time and energy on this worthless fig tree. So often I think this is how people see God. They seem to think that God is ready to write most of us off, ready to chop us down and chuck us on the trash heap (Gehenna, the word we translate as hell in the Gospels literally was the trash heap of Jerusalem, by the way.) This thinking is what the people who came to Jesus must have thought. It is what Job’s wife and friends thought. Maybe it is what you think or have thought along the way.

But then we are given the image of the Gardener, the one who loves the tree, and is not ready to chop it down. “Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.” When we look at the entirety of the teachings of Jesus, I think this is what he is saying. The Gardener, the one who lovingly cares for and fertilizes the fig tree, is actually a better image of the nature of God.

And here is something to ponder. The Gardener puts manure on the tree. Manure happens. No one wants it. No one seeks it out. Manure happens. But from that, new growth can happen. The manure is what brings us to another place. For our muscles to work, we must work them. We fight gravity from the moment we are born. Without it our muscles wither and die. Astronauts spending lengthy time on the space station have to drastically up their exercise or when they come home they will be as weak as babies. They no longer fight gravity just to exist. We are designed to flourish in an adversarial atmosphere!

When bad things happen, we do not wish them, want them, nor do we seek them out. But they DO and WILL come. Always. And we have a response, we can sit on the ash heap, curse God, and die. Or, we can see the things as an opportunity for growth. A line from the Batman movie, “Master Wayne, why do we fall down? To learn to pick ourselves back up.”

And that is how I have to read the enigmatic statement of Jesus, “Repent, or perish like they did.” Repent means to change direction, to turn around. It ALSO means to CHANGE OUR MINDS. (Metanoia) And that is what I hear Jesus saying to those who thought God was out to smite folks. “You all need to repent, or you will continue to suffer under this delusion like those who are perishing in those thoughts. God is not like that…” And that is where he tells the fig tree story.

We perish in unhealthy views of God. We perish when we sell God short, and believe God to be other than Grace-filled, grace-ful, and loving of us all. God wants to give us another chance. God wants to care for us, fertilize us, and give us time to grow. We think of God too often to be like the Owner. But God, Jesus is telling us is really like the Gardener. And the Gardener KNOWS BEST!

What a beautiful thought. What a beautiful God. God is NOT SMITING US! God does not want that.

You have a choice in how you see things. You have a choice in how you respond. You cannot control what life deals you. But your response to that is what shapes your faith, and the more you work those faith muscles the more ready you will be when life hands you a really bad hand.

I must add the caveat to my sermon today. Bad things, horrible things, unspeakable things happen. They hurt, and some things take a lifetime to recover from. I know this. God knows this. One of the great things of being a Christian is that we have a God who so loves us, that he chose to come and be one of us. To breathe, to laugh, to hurt, to cry, and even to die. He knows the human condition. Ecce homo. Behold, the Son of Man. He is not a stranger to what we go through. When Lazarus died, John’s Gospel says, “Jesus cried.” [11:35] When he approached Jerusalem in Luke’s Gospel, he wept. [19:41] When we suffer, God still weeps.

A quote I use a lot in my discernment work with the Diocese comes from writer Frederick Buechner. “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” I know it has been true for me, and for so many passionate Christ followers I have met on my journey, where my deepest woundedness is can be a source of hope and grace for others. That deep gladness that Buechner speaks of is exactly that. My strongest joy, my deep gladness comes from my deepest woundedness. When I was a child, my father passed. It has made so much of my life intent on protecting and caring for the emotional and spiritual welfare for children. The Papa Bear comes out. I want happy, joy-filled, care-free children. They are my deep gladness, and it is so often a great need of the world. In my faith, my woundedness was transformed, utilized, and transforming for others. God is the Gardener who tilled that soil, broke up the clumps deep down in my soul, and breathed life into that barrenness. I repented. I changed my mind and my ways. I no longer perish in the pain and confusion of “Why me?”

God can take that manure that covers us in our living and breathing, and can cleanse us of it and use it to God’s honor and glory. In the economy of our faith, nothing is futile, pointless, or without redemption, even our heartaches and heartbreaks. In our weakness, he is strong. In our weakness, he is mighty to save. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Year C Lent 1 WED 2019 Unforgetting

Year C Lent 1, 13 March 2019
St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA 

“Unforgetting” 

Collect: Almighty God, whose blessed Son was led by the Spirit to be tempted by Satan: Come quickly to help us who are assaulted by many temptations; and, as you know the weaknesses of each of us, let each one find you mighty to save; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen. 

John 3:1-15

1Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. 2He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” 3Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” 4Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother's womb and be born?” 5Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ 8The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” 9Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” 10Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? 11“Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. 12If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

The Sacraments 
Q. What are the sacraments? 
A. The sacraments are outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual grace, given by Christ as sure and certain means by which we receive that grace.

One of the great rubs of the faith is that balancing act, or juxtaposition even, of the spiritual and the physical. The Outward and the Inward. The metaphorical/spiritual and the literal/biological. Our Sacraments are just that, physical metaphors. Baptism. Eucharist. Weddings. Orders. Confession. Unction.

Often when people dismiss the faith we have it is over taking the spiritual or metaphorical literally (and hence physically), and what is is literal metaphorically. I heard a story this week of someone who is openly racist and hate-filled and attends church weekly, where such attitudes and actions are condemned, not condoned. But still they come. They openly and unabashedly express these non-Christlike views far too often. At what point I wonder will they decide that these notorious sins will cross and line, and like the prayer book says, ask them not to come? I cannot imagine ever doing that to anyone, but at the same time I do not have someone spewing hate at visitors and members alike.

The opposite can also be true. I have seen deeply spiritual and loving people who would never set foot in a church, or synagogue, or mosque.

When Nicodemus came to talk with Jesus, Jesus was surprised that a spiritual leader did not have the simplest grasp on how God works.
What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.
We give words to the ephemeral, and for some this is a problem. We need handles for the uncontainable, and that is where people have problems. Jesus said, “born from above.” Nicodemus talked about re-entering the womb. I hope he was trying to be funny. Obviously, Jesus did not think this was a joking manner, and did not trivialize it by going literal or funny. 

We gather together regularly to be reminded. We join with the story. Last night in my Lenten class I used the word ANAMNESIS for the section of the Eucharistic prayer. Today in Prayer A (for Lent) you will hear these words:
Holy and gracious Father: In your infinite love you made us for yourself, and, when we had fallen into sin and become subject to evil and death…
After class Beth reminded me that ANAMNESIS which I translated as Remembrance has a more beautiful meaning. Literally it means the Un-Forgetting. Jesus helped Nicodemus “unforget” what this is all about, the hazards of metaphor, and invited him to something better. “whoever believes in the [Son of Man] may have eternal life.” Amen

Sunday, March 10, 2019

Year C Lent 1, 2019 An Opportune Time

Year C Lent 1, 10 March 2019
St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland VA
“An Opportune Time”


Collect:
Almighty God, whose blessed Son was led by the Spirit to be tempted by Satan: Come quickly to help us who are assaulted by many temptations; and, as you know the weaknesses of each of us, let each one find you mighty to save; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen. Romans 10:8b-13 "The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart" (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); because if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved. The scripture says, "No one who believes in him will be put to shame." For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. For, "Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved."

Luke 4:1-13 After his baptism, Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. The devil said to him, "If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread." Jesus answered him, "It is written,

'One does not live by bread alone.'" Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, "To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours." Jesus answered him, "It is written, 'Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.'" Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, "If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, 'He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,' and 'On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.'" Jesus answered him, "It is said, 'Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'" When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.


Looking at today’s readings, a verse sprang to mind.
1 Peter 5:8 Discipline yourselves, keep vigilant. Like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour.

In fact, in movie portrayals of the Temptation of Jesus, lions are often used to represent Satan, dangerous, hungry, devouring. It was a wilderness, and someone weakened from fasting for so long would make an easy target for a wild beast.

In practical matters, it is always good advice to avoid decisions when one is under the influence. The influence of our emotions, that is. I learned this in graduate school when I did a Deep Dive to learn about the 12-Step Process while working with the Alcoholics Anonymous group at my church at the time. I learned a great acronym that has stayed with me. H.A.L.T. Halt. Never make a decision, HALT yourself in the process when you are Hungry, Angry, Lonely, or Tired. I have used that in my team trainings and pilgrimage orientations since then. It is good advice. Before you snap, say something you regret, make a decision you’ll have to live with, HALT. Know yourself and stop it. And I think that is what Jesus models for us here.

So let us set the stage. Jesus prepared himself for his ministry by turning to prayer. He went up from the Jordan River where we see him at his baptism in the previous chapter: [Luke 3]
21 Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, 22 and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” \
Think about it. We all learn in layers, and here at the beginning of his ministry he receives a clear call to his vocation. He is “the Son, the Beloved.” Now Luke jumps over at this point and goes in depth on the lineage of Jesus. We see that the Son thing is something other than parentage. This is a Messianic Declaration. This is a Spiritual thing. Luke shares that “he was the son (as was thought) of Joseph…” [Luke 3:23]

But if any human mind tried to wrap itself around the idea that oneself is THE ONE, it would take some time to process. Did he know already, and it was affirmed? Did he not? I don’t know. No one can. But the model here is important. We are about spiritual work, no matter what we do in the name of Christ. The clinic downstairs opens in prayer on Wednesdays. The Vestry just got together to pray and lift up the coming year. As things get busier and busier around here I find I have to set more and more time aside to pray. There is an old phrase that goes: “I have so much to do that I shall spend the first three hours in prayer.” That is attributed to Martin Luther, and it rings true.

If Jesus had to get away to pray, certainly we must, too.

I would urge you to have a moment, daily at least, to stop and pray. Daily Devotions for Families is on page 136-140 in the Book of Common Prayer is a GREAT place to start. link The Daily Offices are even better. There are wonderful apps and websites that teens or anybody can use if that is more your thing. Forward Day By Day is another resource. Grab one. We can easily and happily get more. If nothing else, pray the Lord’s Prayer and tell God what is on your heart. Just talk. And then take time to listen. Don’t make the conversation one way. That does not work in any relationship.

It is not too late to take on a new discipline for Lent. God does not have a starting line that you can miss.

So back to Jesus, he goes alone into this area between the Dead Sea and Jerusalem about 30 miles from each other, and hunkers down with God. At the end of this time, 40 days are mentioned, he is tempted. The temptations are choices he could make. They are all the easy route. The easy route to physical relief. The easy route to power. The easy route to being known.

Now the fascinating thing about our interactions that we witness is that we have Jesus and Satan quoting Scripture back and forth. It just goes to show, you may know the Bible, but you have to live it, or it is moot. Sun Tzu in the Art of War: “If you know your enemy and know yourself, and you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.”

So here we see the devil taking the easy route, hitting Jesus at his weakest, his most vulnerable.
The devil said to him, "If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread." Jesus answered him, "It is written, 'One does not live by bread alone.'"
A way to a man’s heart might be through his belly, but here we see Jesus deny himself. His fast was about focusing on what he holds most dear. Like much of what we do, it was an Outward Sign of an Inward Grace. It should be the same when we fast. What is it we choose to embrace? Jesus clings to God. Even famished he knew that he need not succumb to this.
Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, "To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours." Jesus answered him, "It is written, 'Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.'"
The next temptation was to Jesus’ identity. It was a blow to his sense of self to not claim all the power at his command. But in this self-limiting he could truly show us what God was like AND that we could be like that, too. We can choose love over hate; we can choose others over self; and, we can choose servanthood over pride.
Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, "If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, 'He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,' and 'On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.'" Jesus answered him, "It is said, 'Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'"
And the final temptation is the most incipient. We all have needs of the flesh; we have to eat, sleep, and take care of our bodies. We all have identity needs; we care about our loves as we must care for ourselves. Having a healthy sense of self is important, but having an appropriate sense of self is absolute. This cheap magic trick would have all Jerusalem flock to him, but for what? Satan says, “If you are the Son of God…” He is pushing either Jesus’ doubt, or daring him to play Satan’s games. Jesus recognized and declared he knew who he was. In this final temptation, Jesus reminds Satan who is really in control. He reframes the situation and basically shows that Satan, in the end, has no power over him. “Do not put the Lord, your God, to the test.” There is no temptation to Satan’s supposed power because he already has the power, the True power that can only come from God.

A few weeks ago, the day of Youth Sunday, most of you did not hear my sermon at the 8 o’clock Eucharist where I reminded those there that in any situation God has your back. It was true for Jesus. It is true for you.

On Friday, someone offered me something I had chosen to give up for Lent. It was tempting. It was attractive, and the person was very encouraging. I had to stop, HALT, and make a choice. What is it that I hold most dear? This moment which would be nice, or to keep my commitment I made for this time. Thankfully I chose to keep my commitment. It is what I treasured more.

When temptation comes and rears its ugly head, remember that. Take the bigger picture point of view. Think on what you hold most dear. Remember who you are and whose you are. Recognize a temptation for what it is, and remember you have the ability to choose something else, something better. You can choose to not accept to be tempted. When Satan is looking for an opportune time to tempt you, like he did with Jesus, may we see it as OUR opportune time to choose to love God all the more. Amen.

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Year C Ash Wednesday 2019 Precious, Private, and Mine.

Year C Ash Wednesday, 6 March 2019
St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA
“Precious, and Private, and Mine”


Collect: Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing you have made and forgive the sins of all who are penitent: Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of you, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10
We entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
As we work together with him, we urge you also not to accept the grace of God in vain. For he says,
"At an acceptable time I have listened to you,
and on a day of salvation I have helped you."
See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation! We are putting no obstacle in anyone's way, so that no fault may be found with our ministry, but as servants of God we have commended ourselves in every way: through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger; by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left; in honor and dishonor, in ill repute and good repute. We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see-- we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything. 

Matthew 6:1-6,16-21
Jesus said, "Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.
"So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
"And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
"And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
"Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also."

Monday morning of this week National Public Radio had a wonderful piece about how to have hard and confusing conversations with children on subjects like death, and racism, and other scary topics.

https://www.npr.org/2019/03/04/698309351/the-dog-isnt-sleeping-how-to-talk-with-children-about-death?fbclid=IwAR2oQALRCVV2MzX9gIHF7iPRBk7CeZh46juRuStCgf6IEIvaNNrf8sxXyIo

They know by the looks on our faces and how we react that it is bad, or something, and that makes them even more anxious. But a huge part of it is not avoiding clear understanding with euphemisms. Do not say the dog has gone to sleep, but say the word. The dog died. It did not pass away. It did not go to sleep or a better place, but the real thing. The body stopped working. It died.

When thinking on what I do for a living, and how so often I have to carefully tread on subjects because of the divisive nature of our times or sensitivities all around. It becomes hard and confusing. Who might take something the wrong way? I have found that so often I move to euphemisms to introduce hard ideas, but in doing so do I help confuse the topic or downplay the seriousness and importance of what we are discussing?

We come into a season where it does no one any good to downplay the hardness and seriousness of what we are discussing. This is Lent. We talk about death and our mortality. We talk about Sin and our frailty. We talk about God and our imperfection.

“All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” [Romans 3:23] and “None are righteous. No, not one.” [Romans 3:10 citing Psalm 14:1] St. Paul opines. We know this. Most of us do not need to be reminded how bad we are. It is one of the main reasons I so often and eagerly emphasize how BELOVED we all are. But even in our beloved state, there are things that we could do to make things even better.

From today’s Epistle reading, we have Paul again, and he is urging is to strive for godliness. “We entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.” [2 Cor 5:20b]

At St. Paul’s downtown I had the word Reconciled transformed for me. It was during their Lenten Luncheon series. A Catholic priest transformed how I saw this word, Reconciliation. So often I have used it, looking at how we initiate peaceful resolution of conflict, or bridging gaps of separation. In the work I have done with Racial Reconciliation it is often about overcoming Power Disparity, and acknowledging and dismantling privilege as best we can. It is about getting to the point where we can begin to glimpse things from someone else’s perspective, but too often it ends there.

My daughter said she was going to invent a game called Rock Higgins sermon bingo, and it would have things on it like “Embarrass my daughters with a story,” “Talk about camp,” or “Talk about when I was a Baptist.” All those are too close for comfort, but too true to deny. Another one she mentioned, “Explain the etymology of a word we think we know” is something else I do a lot, probably too much for some, but it is how my brain works. She said that one could be a whole row on the bingo card. Once you see where something come froms and how it used to work and how it works now, it is like a huge light comes on illuminating and clarifying.

So get this! The word Reconciliation has an amazing origin. Latin. You may even know most of it. “Re-” meaning again. “Con-” meaning with. SO, Again-With-Ciliation. Cilia. Latin for little hairs. In your intestines, the little nodules that absorb nutrients are called Cilia. I learned that from Schoolhouse Rock! I saw as a child between cartoons. But Again-With-Intestinal-Nodules makes no sense. But the little hairs mentioned are also what the Romans used for other little hairs, particularly the eyelashes. Now we are getting a better picture. Again-With-Eyelashes-tion. Or the Condition-of-being-again-within-eyelash-distance of someone. To be reconciled is to be so close as to be able to give butterfly kisses. It is closer than a handshake. It is closer than a hug. It is breathing in the breath of the other. It is so close as to be intimate. Reconciliation is FAR MORE than what we have settled for when we use that word. And as we heard today: “We entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.”

St. Paul is asking us to become intimate with God. Naked and unashamed. Breathing in the same breath. So close as there is nothing hidden. And that takes work.

It is hard to maintain intimacy. We are that close to so few people in a normal life. Immediate family has many meanings. Intimacy is one of them. From diapers to marital relations, there is so much, so rare, so precious, so (dare I say it) holy. And we are called to reveal ourselves to that point with God.

That is what Lent is, a time where we are stripped down as to where nothing is hidden, and all is revealed. Reconciliation with God is the ultimate statement of Faith. We admit that God already knows us as we are, AND even in that state of potential shame, we are lifted up, looked in the eye, and told that we are BELOVED.

Remember the woman caught in adultery, that Jesus was invited to stone which would have been within his right and within the law. But here he shows all of those condemning her their state of sin, and in her nakedness at his feet, he picks her up, looks her in eye, and asks who is there accusing her. Not him; not anyone else. He reconciled with that woman. And in so doing enabled her to be reconciled with God.

So, how do we attempt this? How do we work on this relationship?

Jesus in these words from his Sermon on the Mount from Matthew talks about some personal piety. Keeping stuff between you and God.

Now if I wanted to have a conversation with my wife, to work on our relationship, I would not do it on a sermon, or on a billboard, or at the dinner table with the kids there. I would do it one on one. That is what Jesus is getting at. When we take things public, it becomes something else. When we work on Again-at-the-eyelash-level-of-intimacy we keep things down and low. We go into lonely, isolated rooms. We pass notes in stealth. We avoid the flashy and the ostentatious. We love in the quiet, we relish the gift of being alone. Our intimacy with God should be as personal as any other of our intimacies. As precious. As treasured. As withheld.

Tonight, we come before God. “See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation!” In an act of contrition we acknowledge that we are dust, and to dust we shall return. What is mortal shall surely die. But, what is immortal must live. We acknowledge our mortality. We embrace our immortal nature in God. Our dust is marked with dust, for we are “but dust.” And likewise, our Spirit is marked as Christ’s own forever. That intimacy is precious, private, and mine. And I trust and pray that it is yours as well. In this holy Lent, let us give thanks to God. Amen

Sunday, March 3, 2019

Year C Final Epiphany 2019 Majestic Glory



Year C Final Sunday after Epiphany, 3 March 2019
St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA
“Majestic Glory”


2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2 Since, then, we have such a hope, we act with great boldness, not like Moses, who put a veil over his face to keep the people of Israel from gazing at the end of the glory that was being set aside. But their minds were hardened. Indeed, to this very day, when they hear the reading of the old covenant, that same veil is still there, since only in Christ is it set aside. Indeed, to this very day whenever Moses is read, a veil lies over their minds; but when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit. Therefore, since it is by God's mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart. We have renounced the shameful things that one hides; we refuse to practice cunning or to falsify God's word; but by the open statement of the truth we commend ourselves to the conscience of everyone in the sight of God.

Luke 9:28-36
Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, "Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah"--not knowing what he said. While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. Then from the cloud came a voice that said, "This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!" When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.


On my last trip to Liverpool with the Triangle of Hope Youth Pilgrimage as we were headed to the airport to fly home through JFK (in NYC) we learned that our flight had been cancelled. No explanation, just cancelled. We scrambled to get any plane to the States for the entire group and ended up getting one in to Chicago. Customs was backed up, so we had to run to our flight to Reagan National in DC. We boarded with minutes to spare. I made sure all our youth and chaperones got on before me and was waiting in the aisle to get to my seat. One our our young men was holding things up trying to get his overpacked carry-on into a shuttle flight’s overhead bin. As I was watching, I recoiled in terror as he almost dropped his heavy suitcase on his seatmate. And then I noticed who his seatmate was.

I could not believe it. I told the young man when I finally got to him to let the stewardess gate check the bag because it was not going to fit. As soon as I got to my seat, I pulled out my phone to double-check that his seatmate was who I thought he was, and try to figure out what was he doing on the last shuttle to DC on a weeknight. When I saw the daily headlines from Chicago, I soon saw why this man was in coach sitting next to one of my youth.

When we landed, I asked the young man if he had any idea who he was seated next to, and he said no. He thought he must be important or something because everyone kept staring, saying hello, and such. I let the young man know that the person he almost dropped his suitcase on was Rahm Emanuel, the mayor of Chicago and President Obama’s Chief of Staff. It turns out while we were out of the country, he had been in a Twitter battle with the President, much of it that day, and he was getting to DC as fast as he could. My guess was he was headed to the White House or to strategize with the Democratic leadership. The young man was sitting next to this important person and had no idea until I lifted the veil.

Hidden in plain sight, right before us and unseen. The Transfiguration is one of those things we acknowledge, but I have rarely had substantive conversations about this most miraculous of unveilings. For that is what it is. It is a theme repeated over and over again in the stories we tell. What we see, or rather what we think we see, is far less than what is.

In Jaws, the shark comes out of the water and Chief Brody says, “I think we’re gonna need a bigger boat.”

In Lord of the Rings, we find that dirty and questionable Strider turns out to be Aragorn son of Arathorn, the King who was lost and now is found.

In Romantic Comedies, the one standing right in front of us is the one we have been looking for all along.

We see, but don’t. Not really. The Veil is lifted, and we see the truth. Peter, James, and John thought they were taking a side trip with Jesus, a little break from teaching and healing when God breaks through.

We end Epiphany yearly with this most amazing of moments. It is recorded in detail in Matthew, Mark, and Luke (the synoptics, syn=same, optics=view, the same-point-of-view Gospels). Some say that John alludes to it in the first chapter (1:14) when he says, “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.” It had such an impact on Peter it became THE point of which he based the surety of his faith, the point of Power which gave him the strength to face a grisly and brutal martyrdom. In 2 Peter (1:16-18) he said:

For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty. For he received honor and glory from God the Father when that voice was conveyed to him by the Majestic Glory, saying, “This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven, while we were with him on the holy mountain.
Peter and the sons of Zebedee, James and John, were moved from a point of hope and faith to one of knowledge. They saw Jesus for who he was. They heard from God’s own voice that Jesus was the One, Beloved or Chosen depending on the Gospel. (They are synonymous.) Faith was no longer at play. So sure was Peter that in the moment he asked to set up monuments to the event. But then a holy silence set in. God shuts Peter up and lets it be known to leave this tender moment, this miracle, alone.

Peter said to Jesus, "Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah"--not knowing what he said. While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. Then from the cloud came a voice that said, "This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!"

These moments cannot last, but they are the things that carry us through the dark and lonely times. These remembrances are the touchstones of our souls that enable us to drudge through the day to day so that we can come out the other side.

In other Gospels Jesus orders their silence. In Luke, here, he does not need to do so. It is apparent that nothing could touch this, describe, explain, or share it. It would either be taken as another tall tale from fisherman (for that is what these three were) or some trick of the light or other dismissable event.

Never again could Peter look at Jesus the same way. Maybe one of the reasons he beat himself up so much when he denies Jesus three times was because he KNEW the Truth. He had seen it with his own eyes. He had heard it with his own ears. He knew the extent of his betrayal. He had caught the vision of Jesus’ Majestic Glory and had said it was not so.

There have been moments in my life when Faith was removed and Surety was provided. Even now I do not want to give details because what is Surety for me might be ridiculous to you. Assurances in your own life are as personal as our DNA. You know those moments when we stop “seeing in a mirror dimly, but... face to face” [I Corinthians 13:12] as St. Paul put it.

I loved how he phrased it in today’s reading [from 2 Corinthians 3].

...when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.
Now mirrors back then are not the perfect image we mostly see today. They were highly polished metal, with wiggles, warps, imperfections and all. But even then he makes a point, we begin to resemble what we gaze upon.

Take any serious, sourpuss adult and put them in the presence of a giggly baby. Most shift and change immediately, shifting to grins and gurgles and coos. The opposite is just as true. When we are depressed and looking down on ourselves, we project that out in what we see and how we see it. Even more, we project that in how WE LOOK. The inner gloom takes a form shaped like us. We may present and put on a happy face when we think it is required, but in those moments when our guard is down we present what we feel, our pain and gloom. “And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.”


There is an old hymn:

O soul are you weary and troubled? No light in the darkness you see?
There's light for a look at the Savior And life more abundant and free
Turn your eyes upon Jesus Look full in His wonderful face
And the things of earth will grow strangely dim In the light of His glory and grace

And as we keep our eyes on Jesus, we begin to see with his eyes. We begin to see him in our hands. Others see him in our actions, and hear him in our voices. And we begin to resemble him that they may even call us little Christs, what the word Christian really means.

In a world that is looking for any reason to reject Christ because of the sins of the Church, when we have been less than the Grace we proclaim, may we be the glaring exception. May we be the “Well, I know at least one person who really believes.” And they can say that because we have removed the veil between what we believe and who we are. We have removed the barrier between listening to Jesus and being like him. We have stopped worrying about setting up monuments and we have take the experience back into the Valley of the World.

As we end this season, Epiphany, of looking back at these moments of revelation of Jesus as the Christ, we do it for a reason. We see these moments of unveiling, these moments in the sun, before we descend into the valley of the shadow of Lent. We pause in our march toward Jerusalem so that we can savor the moments. We embrace his Light before we cower before our Darkness. Sin is something we look away from normally. But as we move forward we descend into a season of acknowledging and embracing our fragility and our mortality. Enjoy this moment in the Sun. Open wide your eyes. For in the descent from God’s Holy Hill the shadows cling too closely. But in the dark we remember the Sun (the Son?).