Sunday, May 26, 2019

Year C Easter 6 2019 You'll Get By

Year C Easter 6, 26 May 2019
St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA
“You’ll Get By”

Collect: O God, you have prepared for those who love you such good things as surpass our understanding: Pour into our hearts such love towards you, that we, loving you in all things and above all things, may obtain your promises, which exceed all that we can desire; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

John 14:23-29
Jesus said to Judas (not Iscariot), "Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. Whoever does not love me does not keep my words; and the word that you hear is not mine, but is from the Father who sent me.
"I have said these things to you while I am still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid. You heard me say to you, `I am going away, and I am coming to you.' If you loved me, you would rejoice that I am going to the Father, because the Father is greater than I. And now I have told you this before it occurs, so that when it does occur, you may believe."

As a father, some of the hardest things I have ever had to do is share what will be bad news with my kids, these little ones that I love and who love me so much. Those times are the worst when I had to say that:
          A) something bad was coming or had just happened.
          And B) no, we cannot change it.
          And C)  yes, everything will be okay.
I assured them that they are loved and that they will be cared for. I assured them that it might be scary, but in the end it will probably be for the best. I had to let them know, as much as I could, that the future was secure. If I had to do this, and it was so hard for me over something minor, relatively speaking, I cannot imagine what it was like for Jesus to tell them that he was going away. And even more, Jesus had to entrust the Kingdom of God to this room of confused and worried disciples.

This Gospel reading is a flashback here on the 6th Sunday of Easter. We flash back to Jesus’ final words to his followers after Judas slinked out to set up his betrayal which I spoke on last week. To those that were still in his fold, Jesus gave these instructions.

“If you love me, do what I said.” So simple, and yet my office is filled with books on on how to do that, supposedly.

And I see us every week, wrestling with these words that Jesus said. His approach to loving and serving others, his approach to putting God above all else. And how do we do that? By loving and serving others first. Circular in its logic, yes. But so real and practical. Those were, and are, his instructions.

When a guest comes into our house, often times we use the phrase, “Make yourself at home.” Sometimes they do. We had a friend come over once, who proceeded to take off his shoes and ask for macaroni and cheese. And he wasn’t kidding. But when we have someone come over, especially a dear friend, we want them to feel at ease and comfortable, like they would at their own home.  When Jesus is saying, "Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.” This phrasing is not conditional. Jesus is not saying, “If you do what I say, God will love you and we will make our home with you.” We so readily hear it and read it as conditional. But look, Jesus is making a declarative statement. "Those who love me will keep my word…” It is not an if. Those who love the Lord are not those who say it. Those who love the Lord are those who show it, in their words and deeds. And God will just love them, just love’em up. “...and we will come to them and make our home with them.”  In our lives and loves, we have to ask ourselves, would God feel at home?

If we do what Jesus said, God would feel at home. God does feel at home. When you walk around St. James the Less, where do you see God getting comfy? Where do you God snuggling in? Think of it. When and where in what we do does God feel “at home?”

When we care for the Least of These, we are doing it not just for God. Jesus told us, we are doing it to him. “Whenever you have done it unto the Least of These, you have done it unto me.” This is the closing line in Jesus’ parable about the Sheep and the Goats in Matthew 25. Who are the Least of These here? Every day of the week that answer is different, and every day we care for the Least of These differently. I am fortunate. I get to see it here daily.

What about where you work? Where is God made comfy and at home? Who are the Least of These where you spend your days? For many, the focus of our faith actions is here, but think of how big our sphere of influence is if we expand it to every home and workplace and gym and school and playground and store and grocery that we frequent. God’s home can be there, too. I know that because God’s Least of These are in every one of those spots.

But the question is how? How do we keep Jesus in mind when we don’t see Jesus here? The disciples may have wondered that question, too. And that is when Jesus promises a gift so great that we still receive it today, and it is still wonderful. “But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.” The Holy Spirit, the Advocate, also called the Counselor, and the Comforter, is the one at our side who does for us what needs to be done. Now I do not wish to dwell on this too much, because this reading is the included in the lectionary reading in a couple of weeks on Pentecost.

The Holy Spirit allows us to make our ways and our lives comfy and homey for God, and in doing so, we are transforming the world into the Kingdom of God. We pray it all the time, and somewhere around the world someone every second of every day is reciting, “Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, On Earth as it is in Heaven.”  The Spirit is with us to help us make it so.

This may seem very Pollyana-ish, or wishful thinking. But Jesus said there is an outcome to this. A point in the following his teachings, in the Advocate working with us. The outcome is his peace. “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”  The sense of completeness, wholeness, living fulfilled and purposed lives is the point of all this. Jesus came to show us the way, and sent us the Spirit to enable our way so that we might “have life and have it more abundantly” as he promised in John 10:10.

Peace is the point. Our peace. The world’s peace. Peace, not in the sense of absence of war. Peace in the sense that we have no locks on the doors, no walls around the city, all manner of things are well, and all manner of things will be well. We are describing here the peace of the Kingdom of God. That is what Jesus wants for us, and calls us to share.

There are times and places that stick in our memories, not because they are necessarily important, but because they speak to a truth. When I was ten, my father was working out in his workshop on some cabinetry or something he was making for his woodworking business, a side job to his being an electrical engineer at the Shipyard down in Newport News. One Saturday I wheeled in my bike, with an underinflated tire hoping for a little help.

Like a good dad, he stopped what he was doing, got out the air compressor, turned it on and pumped up my tire. I was appreciative, and in an offhand comment after I said thanks, I said, “I don’t know what I’d do without you.” I remember the moment not because of what I said, but the look on my father’s face across the workshop.  A quiet man, not one for words, I was surprised when he looked me straight in the eye, and said, “Oh, you’ll get by. You’ll get by.” He was so serious. It stuck with me. His tone. His expression. His sense of my abilities and my temperament.  I still wonder if he knew that day that he was not doing well. You see, a few weeks later he was gone. 

He died quickly and unexpectedly. Later in the grieving process I remembered about the tire and the help he gave me. I remembered the trite phrase I used and his singular response. Did he know his days were numbered? Was he not feeling well but did not tell us? We will never know.  But I do remember at times when I miss him, when I would give anything in the world for one more hug, for one more minute with him, I remember how he looked at me more like a man than a ten year old kid deserved,  and with love said to me, “Oh, you’ll get by. You’ll get by.” Those parting words are the ones we cling to when days are dark and our fears get the better of us. Which is why Jesus was so clear with his disciples and with us that awful night. He clearly spelled out that things would be bad, but that it was all for the best.

On this weekend when we remember those who gave their all for our freedoms and our peace, many stepped into situations where the outcome was known. They did it for duty. They did it for their home. They did it for us.

Jesus did know his days, nay, his hours were numbered also. And said almost the same thing my dad said to those he loved. His words were not, “You’ll get by.” But his intent did. Jesus said to them and says to us: “I have said these things to you while I am still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”

Those who have ears to hear, let them hear.  Amen.

Sunday, May 19, 2019

Year C Easter 5 2019 Walking Out

Year C Easter 5, 19 May 2019 (8 am only because of High School Sunday)
St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA
“Walking Out”

Collect: Almighty God, whom truly to know is everlasting life: Grant us so perfectly to know your Son Jesus Christ to be the way, the truth, and the life, that we may steadfastly follow his steps in the way that leads to eternal life; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

John 13:31-35
At the last supper, when Judas had gone out, Jesus said, "Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, 'Where I am going, you cannot come.' I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another."

When I was four years old, I got my feelings hurt. I was mad. I was sad. I did not want to face my mom because of whatever bad thing I did. Now, four and a half decades later, I have no recollection as to what I did. I do remember how I made my mom feel, and how I felt after her correcting me. So I ran away. Now being 4, I only took the necessities. I grabbed my favorite doll, Mr. Shaggyhead that my aunt had made me, and my blanket, and I went out the front door planning to never come back.

Now, I knew that I was not allowed to cross the street. I was bad, but I was not that bad. Only VERY bad boys crossed the street by themselves. So that kept things very limited. And about the time I figured out how limited my options were, I heard my mom calling for me. So whatever I needed to do, I needed to do it fast.

In my brilliance, I crawled under my dad’s Ford pick-up truck. My dad was out in his workshop so it was only my mom I had to worry about. I got under the truck about the time she got out the front door. “Jeff! Jeff! Where are you?” [Don’t forget my real name is Jeffrey.] Now that I am a parent myself, what I heard as anger was really fear, but at 4 I did not know that.

She ran around the front yard, calling my name, and I knew that I was going to be in big trouble really soon. All I could see was her feet and her ankles running around looking around bushes and getting faster and faster. About the time I figured that I was in bigger trouble than what started this whole thing and was going to come out, my mom ran to the back yard. I figured that I better get back into the house fast.

But then, my mom AND my dad were running around, looking for me, and both were calling my name. Two sets of feet, two sets of ankles. Frantic. Desperate. At this point I knew that I was now getting really close to being VERY bad.

I was cemented to the ground underneath my dad’s truck, and there was NOTHING that was gonna get me out now. Or so I thought.

That is when I heard my dad say, “He cannot have gotten far. You stay here, and I will see if I can find him.” And he moved toward me to get into the truck to drive away.

Now I was scared. I was in trouble. But even at 4, I was not THAT stupid. I HAD get out from under the truck FAST. I jumped out with my hands up saying, “I’m here! I’m here!”

I learned a big lesson that day, we cannot walk out on our problems. It is always better to stay and work them out, or to face the music. And if our problems are with God, truly, where can we go? Our options are more limited than a four year old who is not allowed to cross the street.

In the Gospel today, we see one of the most well known things that Jesus says, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.” And tucked away, just before this, we have Jesus talking about how he has been glorified, and how God has been glorified in him. But just before that, we see a few little words.

At the last supper, when Judas had gone out, Jesus said...

We may be like Judas, and think we can walk out on God. Or as Judas’ betrayal is sometimes told, set up actions to force God’s hand.  Judas, in the verses just before this, is the one where Jesus gives the bread which has been dipped in the bowl. If you have ever been invited to a Seder meal, what Jesus and his disciples were having at the Last Supper, a part of the meal is dipping your Matzah (unleavened bread) into the Maror, the bitter herbs. It is to give the bitterness of slavery back into the mouth of the celebrants. The taste that Judas and Jesus shared, that bitterness, is often shaved and minced raw horseradish. That is what I have had as Maror when I have been at a Seder. Pungent. Strong. Unforgettable. “Do quickly what you are going to do.” With those words and with that taste on his tongue, Judas heads out. Slavery in his mouth and in his mind, Judas heads to Betrayal, and Jesus heads to Love teaching his disciples to do the same.

Judas was walking away from all that he had seen and all that he had learned over three years following Jesus. Judas thought that he could get away from all this Jesus stuff, for whatever reason, but like the Maror, the bitter herb, the taste lingers. We only think that we can walk out on God.

We may think we can get on a ship and head West when God said to go East. Jonah tried that. And look where it got him. A Great Fish. Three days of darkness. And then he ended up where God sent him in the first place.

We may think we can come up with excuses, and get away from God. Moses tried that with the burning bush. He has half a chapter of excuses on why he cannot do what God is asking. (Exodus 4:1-17) And do not forget that already Moses had run away from murder, which took him to the desert in the first place. He spent decades thinking he could outrun his past.

As our Revelation reading reminded us, God said of Godself, “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.” God is here long before us, and will be here after we are dust and a distant memory. Why would we ever think we can get one over on God.

Back to when I ran away, even then, after the adrenaline rush I had given my parents, when I crawled out, I expected a spanking. And what did I receive? Welcome arms, relief and joy. When we think we can walk out on God, what we really find is that we are loved, and always have a way home. Amen.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Year C Easter 4 WED 2019 The Point of the Game

Year C Easter 4 WEDNESDAY, 15 May 2019
St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA
“The Point of the Game”

Collect: O God, whose Son Jesus is the good shepherd of your people: Grant that when we hear his voice we may know him who calls us each by name, and follow where he leads; who, with you and the Holy Spirit, lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen

Luke 6:1-11
One sabbath while Jesus was going through the grainfields, his disciples plucked some heads of grain, rubbed them in their hands, and ate them. But some of the Pharisees said, “Why are you doing what is not lawful on the sabbath?” Jesus answered, “Have you not read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? He entered the house of God and took and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and gave some to his companions?” Then he said to them, “The Son of Man is lord of the sabbath.”

On another sabbath he entered the synagogue and taught, and there was a man there whose right hand was withered. The scribes and the Pharisees watched him to see whether he would cure on the sabbath, so that they might find an accusation against him. Even though he knew what they were thinking, he said to the man who had the withered hand, “Come and stand here.” He got up and stood there. Then Jesus said to them, “I ask you, is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to destroy it?” After looking around at all of them, he said to him, “Stretch out your hand.” He did so, and his hand was restored. But they were filled with fury and discussed with one another what they might do to Jesus.

I enjoy games. Playing them is fun. Working at summer camps as long as I did I have played some crazy games, and invented some doozies along the way. The big thing about playing games which is so fun is because we have to step out of our lives, and play by the rules of that game. Games can be similar, but for a game to be unique, it has to have its own set of rules.

When you start to learn the rules of a board game, it most often comes with a set of instructions on how to play. And have you ever noticed where most rules of the game start? The Point of the Game, the Outcome, or the Goal.

The Point in Football? To score the most points in the given time by moving the ball across the goal line.
The Point in Basketball? To put the ball through the hoop scoring more points than your opposing team.
The Point in Checkers? To eliminate all your opponent’s pieces.
The Point of Chess? To take your opponent’s King.
Now surrounding the Point of the Game is the board, field, or court on which one plays, and it is set up in such a way to enable the game to be played within those rules. And then, lastly, come the rules of the game, these self-imposed restrictions that enable the game to be that game. Like I said, the rules of each and every game is unique.

The last thing you need, and I stole this from McClendon’s wonderful systematic theology Book One: Ethics. He says that we need to have a lusory attitude, from the Greek word lusos for game. Like a toddler says when we get out of character playing on the floor with them, “Play for REAL!!!” We have to be “in” the Game.

Now after that huge preamble, I think that is where Jesus is coming from. The Pharisees were very good at making sure that everyone else PLAYED BY THE RULES. And that is where Jesus comes back to them. They were so fixated on the Rules of the Sabbath that they forgot the Point of the Sabbath. The point of the Sabbath was to give Life, not to strip it or take it away.

Still to this day, observant Jews take the Sabbath rules VERY seriously. On Monday there was a fascinating article on NPR specifically about this, and the eruv that encircles much of Manhattan, giving observers a barrier to maintain household Sabbath rules instead of public Sabbath rules. Here is the article.

In every group of people, there will be people who see themselves as the maintainer of the rules, or the standards, or the legacy. Sometimes they are so needed. Sometimes they get so caught up in the rules that they miss the first item in the instructions for this “game” we are playing. The game first and foremost is to fulfill the Point of the “Game.”

Now, depending who you ask that “Point of the Game” is going to be different, but I defer to the one in whose name we gather today, Jesus. He said to the one who asked about the rules, what he should do and which was most important. He responded with “Love God with everything you’ve got, and your neighbor as much as yourself. And everything else will fall into place.” Rough paraphrase, but it gets the point across.

You can see that the Pharisees saw the Point of the Game to be different from their response.  “But they were filled with fury and discussed with one another what they might do to Jesus.”

My hope and prayer is that we all are playing Jesus’ game, and keeping his Point of it all. May our heads be in the “Game.” Amen.

Sunday, May 12, 2019

Year C Easter 4 2019 Safe and Secure

 Year C Easter 4, 12 May 2019 (Mother’s Day)
St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA
“Safe and Secure”

Collect: O God, whose Son Jesus is the good shepherd of your people: Grant that when we hear his voice we may know him who calls us each by name, and follow where he leads; who, with you and the Holy Spirit, lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Psalm 23 “The Lord is my shepherd…”

John 10:22-30
At that time the festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon. So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, "How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly." Jesus answered, "I have told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father's name testify to me; but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep. My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father's hand. The Father and I are one."


In years to come, the Age we live in could very well be called The Age of Fear. We live in the most affluent and prosperous nation in the history of world, and yet we speak of scarcity and lack. We speak of not trusting our neighbor or the stranger, and yet crime is down across the board. Anything that happens anywhere, it is sensationalized for our entertainment, not for our information. Infotainment has become more prevalent than news. Like a potato chip or a salty peanut, if we try it once it is hard to stop. Fear begets fear begets fear, and our emotions drive the car not the brain God gave us. That is the problem with fear. In its grip, our mind turns off. There is a mantra used in one of my favorite novels. It goes, “Fear is the mindkiller.” [Dune by Frank Herbert] Though from a novel, it could not be more true.

There was an interesting article that received a lot of press last fall looking specifically at fears. Bloomberg had an article on September 5 (link) that talked about the mega-rich hidden safe houses in case calamity strikes the world. Plague or killer virus, nuclear war, natural disaster, or even zombie apocalypse, these so called Bolt-Hole Homes are put in secluded areas, and put in in such a way that not even locals in these far flung locales should even know that these Hidey Holes even exist.

The homes are often pre-made security bunkers, and then they are buried 11 feet underground so that they can even survive nuclear fall-out. According to the article, much of the Silicon Valley 1% Elite have plans to fly directly to their property in New Zealand where they have things squirreled away for their intentional and self-imposed isolation. Why New Zealand? “‘If you’re the sort of person that says ‘I’m going to have an alternative plan when Armageddon strikes,’ then you would pick the farthest location and the safest environment — and that equals New Zealand if you Google it,’” says former Kiwi Prime Minister John Key.

The New Zealand Parliament actually had to ban any further billionaire Apocalypse Refugees from encroaching on their shores. Sounds like the safe place getaway wants to keep their safe place for themselves.

We live in anxious times, where fear seems to be the parlance of the day. I watch the news and it seems my blood-pressure just rises. The way the news is shared, too often, is to drive us to outrage. If they can tap into our fears than we no longer rationally consider whatever the topic is and can be easily influenced. These fears are becoming universal as people are driven to strong-man politicians to alleviate them of their fears. The mega-rich express it with their bunkers, but even in recent times it has moved into the middle class.

You may have heard about the so-called Panic Rooms that people have installed in case someone invades their home. They even made a movie about one.

So where do we look for safety and security? Where do we feel safe? Wealth? Health? Education? Possessions? How much is enough to let you feel safe?

Once I had a dream, for real. (I was in seminary, and had lots to worry about.) I was wandering in a desert, lost, alone, desperate. I pushed, I shoved, I inched along. As I came over a rise, looking for view from which I could find hope or some source of rescue, I saw instead an oncoming sandstorm heading directly for me. I went back down the dune hoping for some protection. Curled into a fetal position, the wind and sand bit at all that was me. Darkness and pain reigned through the whole night. Sometime in the storm I passed out. Still dreaming, I came to. There was light! There was silence! There was hope that came with the dawn. I sat up and opened my eyes. As I shook off the sand, I looked around. The hollow that I was sitting was no hollow. As I looked around I found, that I was resting in the very hand of God.

Where do you find your hope? Where do you find your security?

The religious leaders were looking for a little security when they confronted Jesus in John 10 in today’s readings. The rumors were flying and so many were asking of Jesus, “Could he be the one?” They went to him while he was in the Temple.
“How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.” Jesus answered, “I have told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father's name testify to me; but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep...”
If Jesus would just answer them they could know what to do. They obviously wanted to be in on the side of the Messiah, but they wanted the Messiah on their terms and in their image.

Jesus wanted to show them another way. A way apart from the legalism and judgmentalism is what Jesus was offering. He wanted them to know him, but they had to let go of the security of the expectations and wrong assumptions about who he was to be. Jesus talked about how his followers know him for who he is, and who he claims to be through his actions, through his teachings…
“My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father's hand. The Father and I are one.”
We are his sheep. Echoes of Psalm 23 cannot be missed. But for me the most powerful image here is not the one we know so well, but tucked in here is a promise. NO ONE WILL SNATCH THEM OUT OF MY HAND. There is nowhere that I would rather be.

If we are Christ’s, we are Christ’s own FOREVER. There is nothing that can separate us from the love of God [Romans 8:38]. There is nothing that can snatch us out of the palm of God’s Hand.

And even more comforting is that the Hand of God is not just in this world, but we rest there safe and secure in whatever world there is to come.

In our Psalm reading, we hear King David’s comforting words, the words of a shepherd who says that the Lord is the True Shepherd. And as a shepherd himself, David would know.

Psalm 23 remains a favorite, and most funerals I do use it as a consolation and touchstone for the grieving. Even those who have never been to a church, or have not been in decades have heard and can recite the words, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want…”

We say those words for comfort. But how might we act if we lived in that promise? How might we live if we truly believed and acted on this as guiding philosophy? WHAT WOULD WE DO IF WE WEREN’T AFRAID?

I have seen this question rise up in our culture. I have seen this asked in so many ways. It is a response to our times, which does its best to pump our fear the best it can. But I would encourage you to read or watch on TED or Netflix the groundbreaking work of Brene Brown. So much of her work is about this question surrounding fears.

So if we are to live in the promise of God as our Shepherd, let’s look at that closely...

Psalm 23 (this translation is from the Book of Common Prayer, pp. 612-613)
1 The Lord is my shepherd; *I shall not be in want.2 He makes me lie down in green pastures *and leads me beside still waters.

We all have needs, we all have to have our basics covered. Food. Water. Shelter. When we have these cared for then can move on to higher matters. Maslow and his hierarchy of needs identifies this. The Lord is our Shepherd, he will provide our needs. When we have the foundational stuff covered, we care for higher concerns, meaning, purpose, self-actualization. David identified that with what came next.
3 He revives my soul *
and guides me along right pathways for his Name's sake.
We have time and space to care for our souls when the worries of this world are taken care of. Our shepherd is not out to hoodwink us, or to drive us to fear. In his resurrected form his first words were often, “Peace” or “Fear Not.” He wants to take care of our whole selves, our bodies, minds, and souls. Our Shepherd restores our souls.
4 Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil; *
for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
Even in our greatest fear, the only promise to everyone born, death, we need not fear it. The valley of the shadow of it, or as he said it in John’s Gospel. “I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one and nothing will snatch them out of my hand.”
5 You spread a table before me in the presence of those who trouble me; *you have anointed my head with oil, and my cup is running over.
Think on this. Nothing burns the biscuits of someone who has it out for us than when we succeed. A full and bountiful table spread before us, and they see it. They hate THAT. We are chosen, and the sign of that is anointing, an anointing from the very hand of God. We live in abundance and bounty, and our cup cannot even contain it.
6 Surely your goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, *
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.
We have no worries. Goodness and mercy are with us all our days. And the verb used there for goodness and mercy is more than follow. The Hebrew there is far more active. Radaph, the verb here, is not a puppy chasing after us. The very Hounds of Heaven are on our path. “Chase after or pursue” is a far better translation of Radaph. God’s blessings pursue us. Thanks be to God. And in the world to come, we will be with our Shepherd forever. And nothing and no one can snatch us out of his hand.

So, Monday morning, you wake up, do your routine, and as you start your day, ponder this. If God is my Shepherd, how will this shape my day? How will I act? What will I say (or not say)?How will I respond to people? How will I let people respond to me? It makes a difference when the Lord is my Shepherd. Amen.

Sunday, May 5, 2019

Year C Easter 3 2019 With A Turn

Year C Easter 3, 5 May 2019
St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA
“With A Turn”

Collect: O God, whose blessed Son made himself known to his disciples in the breaking of bread: Open the eyes of our faith, that we may behold him in all his redeeming work; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Acts 9:1-20
Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?" He asked, "Who are you, Lord?" The reply came, "I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do." [The men who were traveling with him stood speechless because they heard the voice but saw no one. Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; so they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. For three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.
Now there was a disciple in Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, "Ananias." He answered, "Here I am, Lord." The Lord said to him, "Get up and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul. At this moment he is praying, and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight." But Ananias answered, "Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem; and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who invoke your name." But the Lord said to him, "Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel; I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name." So Ananias went and entered the house. He laid his hands on Saul and said, "Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit." And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored. Then he got up and was baptized, and after taking some food, he regained his strength.
For several days he was with the disciples in Damascus, and immediately he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, "He is the Son of God."

John 21:1-19
Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way. Gathered there together were Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples. Simon Peter said to them, "I am going fishing." They said to him, "We will go with you." They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.
Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to them, "Children, you have no fish, have you?" They answered him, "No." He said to them, "Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some." So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish. That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, "It is the Lord!" When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the sea. But the other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, only about a hundred yards off.
When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread. Jesus said to them, "Bring some of the fish that you have just caught." So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred fifty-three of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn. Jesus said to them, "Come and have breakfast." Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, "Who are you?" because they knew it was the Lord. Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.
When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, "Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?" He said to him, "Yes, Lord; you know that I love you." Jesus said to him, "Feed my lambs." A second time he said to him, "Simon son of John, do you love me?" He said to him, "Yes, Lord; you know that I love you." Jesus said to him, "Tend my sheep." He said to him the third time, "Simon son of John, do you love me?" Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, "Do you love me?" And he said to him, "Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you." Jesus said to him, "Feed my sheep. Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go." (He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, "Follow me."

Conversion is not a word we use a lot in a liturgical setting. We attempt to do our best to raise our children in the knowledge and love of God, both in our families and in our churches. We want people to know from the beginning that they are a part of God’s movement through history, drawing all things and beings unto Godself, that they are a part of God’s kingdom. So, for many, there is no conversion, a changing of ways because they have always understood that they are loved and accepted by God. But even then, there is usually a point where people make a turn, at Confirmation, at a crisis moment, or in a call to deeper commitment.

More and more, people are not “cradle Episcopalians.” So much of our Church, the Episcopal Church entirely that is, started somewhere else or came from no religious background at all. If you look in the Book of Common Prayer, the expectation is that what comes first is the norm.  In the Baptism Rite, adult baptism comes before infant/child baptism. It was an admittance that “Times, they are a’changin’.”

But you know me and words. Whether we know an origin behind a word or phrase, its etymology (history of meaning of words) can shape its use. When we know it, it can affect our understanding and thinking. “Conversion” is based on the Latin, Con- meaning with, and Vers- or Vert- meaning turn. Conversion, therefore means, “with a turn.” And a Conversation is “Turning to another.” Today, we have two conversions in our readings. In both, Christ confronts people. In both, Christ is not angry, nor abusive, nor retributional. In both, we see astounding love and grace given to two who by most of our standards did not get what they deserved.

Sts. Peter and Paul, the pillars of the Church of Christ, could not be bigger in our faith heritage unless they are Christ Jesus himself, and yet today we see both of them lovingly confronted by Jesus, and through that encounter with Grace, they were both dramatically converted.

St. Paul’s story has become a cliché-- “Blinded by the Light.” But that is exactly where we find him. He is on the road to Damascus, headed there to persecute the believers in Jesus under the authority and mandate of the Chief Priests in Jerusalem. He was a man with a mission. And then, in a plot twist to rival the best of the popular dramas on TV, Jesus calls out to Saul (St. Paul’s birth name). “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” It reminds me of the parable of the Sheep and the Goats, when God says “When you have done it unto the Least of These, you have done it unto me.” When Saul was persecuting the Church, from the stoning of Stephen the Deacon, to those in Damascus he was headed to haul back in chains, when the Church hurts, Christ hurts. Repeatedly in Scripture we are given the image that the Church is the Bride of Christ. When any of our spouses are in pain, or in trouble, or being hurt in any way we all respond in pain. I would rather hurt than to see Stephanie hurt. Most of you married folks would agree. That is one of the bonds of marriage.

When Jesus confronts Saul, that is where he comes from, “Why are you persecuting me?” Saul, taken aback, says “Who are you, Lord?”
 The reply came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.”
He heads to a house on Straight Street, and if you have ever been in ancient cities you know how rare a straight street is. And there he is given some time to Convert. To ponder. To think. To question EVERYTHING! This is not harmful, hurtful, or retributional. At least I do not see it that way, and filtered through the rest of Saul/Paul’s life I do not think he did either. He was given another chance. He was able to turn from a path that he would have regretted for eternity had he continued down it. Even in his writings he called himself the Chief of Sinners for what he had already done. (I Timothy 1:15)

The biggest sign of his transformation comes in his changing of name. Saul comes from the first ancient King. His name literally means “asked for,” and our St. Paul may have been a child for whom his parents prayed and asked of God that he be delivered to them. Now the change of one letter may seem to be small, but that letter makes a huge difference. It is a different name, with a different meaning. The One who saw himself as “God’s Gift that has been asked for” now becomes Paul. Paul means Humble, Little, or Small. And when he was blinded so he could see the true light, he was humbled, without question.

While St. Paul’s conversion was dramatic, I do not want to downplay the more subtle turning of Peter. It can mean so much as we unpack it. But the meaning is greater when we see it in the context of the rest of the trajectory of Peter’s life.

Jesus had died. Jesus had resurrected. Now what does this mean? What does Jesus’ resurrection mean to our day to day life? What does it convey as far as what we choose to do?

After he witnessed the resurrection of Jesus, Peter made a choice. With the whole world needing to hear this Good News, he made a decision. He was going fishing. He went back to what he knew best. And being the leader that he was, people went with him. So often there is a temptation to go back to what we know. If you have ever dealt with someone coming from rehab, you know this to be true. They have to change everything. Old friends. Old places. They can be the triggers for old habits. That is exactly where the disciples went.  Back to the same ol’, same ol’. And be honest with yourself, I will not ask you to raise your hands, how many of us have done the same at some point in our lives? For there to be wholesale change we have to let it ripple through all aspects of our lives.

We call Jesus our Savior and Lord, and those are not synonyms. Jesus saves us, hence Saviour. Jesus needs to be our Lord, he needs to be in charge of all aspects of our lives. Our choices can go back to what they were before Jesus, just like Peter did here. Or we can let Jesus in on our decisions and choices.

After a night of fishing, with nothing to show for it, Jesus gives them instructions. They follow it, and recognize their Lord. Peter, acting first and thinking later, dives in to get to Jesus as fast as he can. And then as breakfast is consumed he remembers things and I can imagine the full-of-life Peter getting quiet and introspective. Science tells us how strong a trigger for our memories scents are. We are taken back INSTANTANEOUSLY when we have a strong memory trigger.

In the Gospel of John (and in all of the New Testament actually) the word charcoal is only used twice. Here, along the sea at the breakfast. The only other time it is mentioned is at the lowpoint of Peter’s life. The night in question is the night we call Maundy Thursday, when Jesus was on trial at Caiaphas’ house, and Peter was in the courtyard denying he ever knew him. In Saul’s vision, Jesus is directly confrontational. In Peter’s early morning confrontation, Jesus is far more subtle.
When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.” A second time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.” He said to him the third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep…”
The smell of charcoal, the memories of three denials. The weight of guilt. The tide of shame. Three times, “Do you love me?” The final response of Peter, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” 

Of course he knows. Of course he knows Peter’s heart. Peter needed to hear PETER say it. YOU KNOW THAT I LOVE YOU. And with each response of yes, Jesus tasks him to shepherd his flock. Peter may have written Peter off, but Jesus never did. Peter’s conversion, his turning, was an invitation to come back to home, a direct invitation to remind him that there is no need to run away. He still had a place, and always will.

So do we all.

Conversions, turnings, are the foundation of the Church. There are none who are natives. God does not have grandkids. We are all the Children of God. And as our Shaker brothers and sisters sang, “By turning, turning, we come round right.” Amen