Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Year C Proper 10 WED Let the New Be New

Year C Proper 10 WEDNESDAY, 17 July 2019
St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA
“Let the New Be New”

Collect: O Lord, mercifully receive the prayers of your people who call upon you, and grant that they may know and understand what things they ought to do, and also may have grace and power faithfully to accomplish them; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Mark 2:13-22
Jesus went out again beside the sea; the whole crowd gathered around him, and he taught them. As he was walking along, he saw Levi son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax booth, and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he got up and followed him.
And as he sat at dinner in Levi’s house, many tax collectors and sinners were also sitting with Jesus and his disciples—for there were many who followed him. When the scribes of the Pharisees saw that he was eating with sinners and tax collectors, they said to his disciples, “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” When Jesus heard this, he said to them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.”
Now John’s disciples and the Pharisees were fasting; and people came and said to him, “Why do John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?” Jesus said to them, “The wedding guests cannot fast while the bridegroom is with them, can they? As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast. The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast on that day.
“No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old cloak; otherwise, the patch pulls away from it, the new from the old, and a worse tear is made. And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and the wine is lost, and so are the skins; but one puts new wine into fresh wineskins.”

Putting the new onto the old rarely works. Jesus talks about it with new patches on old cloaks. Once the new patch shrinks it will pull away from the already shrunk cloth. He speaks of it with new wine, fermenting. You put the juice in with the yeast into a leather bladder or bag sealing it, and the yeast eats the sugars converting it into ethyl alcohol and carbon dioxide. The gases cause the wineskin to expand, stretching the leather. If you pour new wine into already stretched out leather it will burst and you will lose everything. When starting fresh, start fresh.

Levi was like that. He had had to work to get his position as a tax collector, bribing all the right people, and swindling others to make enough to pay off the bribes. It was a lucrative, but expensive trade. Jesus did not say, “Add some of my teachings, and stir.” What he did say is “Follow me.” It requires one to get up, leave what was behind to follow him.

But the call to leave things behind was not just for Levi’s ease. Jesus knew people. It is almost impossible to not follow old scripts. People were not willing to give Levi, or most people, the benefit of the doubt. Even at the dinner they held that night (remember Levi was well off), Levi had invited his friends, “tax collectors and sinners,” to come and hear the teachings of this remarkable rabbi and his disciples. The “judginess” came out quickly. They judge Jesus for the company he keeps. It is human nature, as old as time. As I said on Sunday, we choose those with whom we are close, and those with whom we are not. Look who Jesus chose.

My collar gets in the way of a lot of people getting to know me. When someone is acting normal around me, and they find out I am a minister it is funny and sad sometimes how they shift and begin to act differently. This slip of a curse word now requires an apology once they know. It is awkward for both of us. I am a sinner who found a way out of my cycle, am still finding a way out of of some of my cycles, and like Levi I want EVERYONE to try what I have found. “Taste and see that the Lord is good!” declares Psalm 34:8. We were at a restaurant the other day and I was surprised and delighted by something I ordered. I handed around forks with a sample around the table. “You gotta try this!” The girls did. God is like that, too. I have found a sense of peace and grace and love that I cannot put into words. And that excitement and exuberance bubbles up, like new wine in new skins.

In the last few days, as we have been unpacking and settling in the rectory, I have been very intentional about doing some practices and disciplines I have started and stopped or long wanted to adopt. They always came with stops and starts, but not that we have a radical reorientation in our lives, I trust and hope that this will now be more and more possible and sustaining. It has so far, thanks be to God.

“No one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and the wine is lost, and so are the skins; but one puts new wine into fresh wineskins.” We need to let the new be new, and leave behind what holds us back. Amen



Sunday, July 14, 2019

Year C Proper 10 2019 Proximity Does Not Make You Close

Year C Proper 10 14 July 2019
St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA
“Proximity Does Not Make You Close”

O Lord, mercifully receive the prayers of your people who call upon you, and grant that they may know and understand what things they ought to do, and also may have grace and power faithfully to accomplish them; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Luke 10:25-37
Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. "Teacher," he said, "what must I do to inherit eternal life?" He said to him, "What is written in the law? What do you read there?" He answered, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself." And he said to him, "You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live."

But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, "And who is my neighbor?" Jesus replied, "A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, `Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.' Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?" He said, "The one who showed him mercy." Jesus said to him, "Go and do likewise."

We all know the types. The ones who sit on the first row, their hands almost perpetually raised. Hermione Granger was like that in the Harry Potter series. As a teacher I loved those kids, and they drove me crazy. They wanted so much to please, or to show how smart they are or how hard they had worked, but often did not take into account the learning or the feelings of the others in the class. I see the lawyer this way. Wanting to test the Rabbi maybe, and wanting to justify himself the story tells us, the lawyer asks these questions of Jesus.

And Jesus, like Socrates, answers the student’s question with a question.
“Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”
We see the young lawyer asking for a clarification. He knew the rules. And he had some ideas, nothing new, but well laid out plans many teachers had quoted. To be “justified” with God, what must one do? He quotes here two Scripture verses: Deuteronomy 6:5 Love God with everything, and Leviticus 19:18 Love neighbor like self. The vertical relationship of faith, loving God, the horizontal, loving neighbor. Both are requisite and needed. Jesus praises him. He is correct. But it is hard for a lawyer to stop being a lawyer.

What exactly is a neighbor?

I grew up on Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood. To this day, Rev. Fred Rogers is one of my heroes. His ministry, cutting edge and so needed today in our world, was to children and their families through media. How progressive in the mid-60s in the middle of the cultural and social upheaval of those times. This specialized calling and ordaining was down through the Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh. On his show, I saw that Mr. Rogers was a neighbor to everyone, and all he met were nice and “neighborly” to him. Now as I child I did not understand that this was not a real house, and a real neighborhood. It was a script they were using, not real life, but to me it did not make it any less real.

During the horrors of some of the civil rights actions, a hotel owner decided to pour acid into a pool some African-American guests had decided to swim in against “the rules.” Outraged, Fred Rogers decided to handle his furor in a neighborly way. On his next episode, Officer Clemmons (portrayed by Fran├žois Clemmons), an African-American, and Mr. Rogers soaked their feet together in a kiddie pool to relax from the heat. They even shared a towel. Unbelievable in 1969 when it happened. But Fred Rogers showed mercy, just as Jesus commanded, that we should go and do likewise.

We are now your neighbors. My family slept in Ashland for the first time last night. It is a new day for us, and for my ministry here at the Church. I am no longer “ministering to,” I am “residing” or “dwelling with.” It makes a difference with me, and hopefully with us.

So, like the young lawyer, it begs a question for me as we begin this relationship anew. Who is my neighbor? I did a little digging and learned some fascinating stuff this week.

The word we translate as the noun “neighbor” is not a noun in the Greek. It is an adverb. We use neighbor because it is easier to say. Now to remind you of your grammar, an adjective describes a noun, a person place or thing. Adverbs modify verbs, adjectives, other adverbs, or word groups, expressing a relation of place, time, circumstance, manner, cause, degree, etc. So the word plesion in the Greek we use for neighbor is really “nearby.”

“Okay, we get it, Rock, get to your point. What is the big deal?”

Even in Jesus’ day, “Who is my neighbor?” is better said, “Who exactly is NEARBY?” And even in Jesus’ day the answer is proved in the doing. Proximity does not make one a neighbor. Being close to someone is not a matter of place, it is a matter of heart.

When I got off my plane last week, I had landed in Richmond, I was technically home, but it was when I saw Stephanie and the girls with my own two eyes that I was finally home. Home is where the heart is. Being close, “a NEARBY One,” is also a matter of the heart.

So what does Jesus say about being a NEARBY One in our story? Those who passed by, the Priest and the Levite were following all the religious rules and missing the entire point. Had they touched the wounded man, they would have been ritually unclean. Now for a priest at this point, especially one on the way to Jerusalem could very well have been on his way to the Temple. It may very well be that this was his one shot to serve in the Temple. His one shot to lead in the Big City Church, and he was “not allowed” to help according to all the rules. And notice what Jesus said, “he passed by on the other side.” Though they were close in faith and lineage, but the priest did not come close. The same for the Levite. He also “passed by on the other side.”

But then we have our Samaritan. Racial mudbloods, traitors going back hundreds of years. They were not taken off into the Babylonian Captivity. They intermarried and were no longer pure. They rejected the Temple practices, preferring more the High Holy Places alluded to Psalm 121, “I look unto to the hills, from where will my help come from?” This song was sung by pilgrims going up to Jerusalem to the Temple, rejecting the High Hill worship spots along their routes. The Samaritans still worshiped there. They were so FAR from the Israelites. But not this one. Jesus says,
“But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’”

The one so far from the victim was the only one who came CLOSE. He was NEARBY to the victim. He touched him, cleansed him, cared for him. He paid his bill. His heart went out to him. (Literally “moved with compassion”) He chose to be close.

We all do. We choose those with whom we are close, and those with whom we are not. There are friends I have not seen in decades with whom I am still close. The virtual world we live in makes that more and more possible. There are those who have passed who I think of fondly, or feel them close, though they have long since passed. Closeness is a choice.

We live in a jaded and cynical time. We have neighbors whose names we may not know, whose lives we do not touch. When we packed up our house we no longer had neighbors who will miss us. Those we would have missed have all died or moved away. But already just this week, three people as we were unloading have stopped in to give welcome and say hello. It will be a different world for us; it already is.

Sometime this week, you will see someone. A stranger, perhaps, who you will feel a prompting for your heart to go to them. Do it. Just do it. The Holy Spirit works in mysterious ways.

Mr. Rogers chose to be close to Officer Clemmons, taking off his shoes and socks, sharing a common pool, a common towel. He chose to be close in a world pouring acid on difference. Closeness is a choice. Distance is, too.

Jesus asked the lawyer, and us: “Which of these..., do you think, was NEARBY to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” The lawyer said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, and us, "Go and do likewise.”

So my new neighbors, let us draw closer to God and to one another. And may we, “Go and do likewise.” Amen

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Year C Proper 9 WED 2019 Another Way

Year C Proper 9 WEDNESDAY 10 July 2019
St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA
“Another Way”

O God, you have taught us to keep all your commandments by loving you and our neighbor: Grant us the grace of your Holy Spirit, that we may be devoted to you with our whole heart, and united to one another with pure affection; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

I Samuel 16:1-13 The Anointing of David story
Acts 10:1-16 Cornelius calling on Peter, and receiving the Holy Spirit story
Luke 24:13-35 The Road to Emmaus story

I remember when I was working on a big project down in Richmond in my Baptist days. We were in the bar and restaurant district of downtown, Shockoe Bottom. One of the ministers I was working with was doing a presentation on the very same project and he described the area as “vile.” And as “the butthole of Richmond.” I was aghast. He was coming into a situation, so biased and against the area and the people. He saw himself as a savior or at the right hand of the savior. Later I learned he was so shocked that people “rejected” his ministry.

When we deal with people in whatever ministry we have, we need to look with the eyes of Grace. Think of the interactions Jesus had. Very rarely does Jesus get judgy, and never with those we might label as the “Sinners.” Who does Jesus get judgy with? The Churchy People. The Pharisees. The Money Changers. The Ones who have already decided they are righteous and know “the way things are.”

I love today’s readings taken together. They all tell the story of religious types, coming in with their preconceived notions and dictums. They come in naming what is to be done, instead of asking “Where is God at work, and how can I join in?”

When Samuel comes to anoint the successor to Saul, he goes through all the sons of Jesse. Never hearing from God that any of them were “the One,” Samuel asked, “Got anymore sons?” Jesse, “Yeah, but it is only the runt, David.” His own family could not see that the Chosen One was amongst them, a boy who would be described as a Man after God’s Own Heart. “Man looks at the outward appearance, but God looks at the heart.”

Cornelius, a Roman, hears the word of God to go and send for Peter who was down in Joppa. And God is speaking the word to Peter that what he considered unclean, God did not care. “What God has cleansed you must not call common.” Once again, the religious had set notions of propriety, what was right and good, and then God showed up in unexpected places and ways.

Lastly, those disciples on the road to Emmaus on that Easter Sunday did the exact same thing. Dead was dead, and Jesus was gone. They had heard the crazy rumors, and were talking loudly and excitedly. So much so, Jesus was in their midst and they could only see a stranger.

How often do we do that? I probably do it all the time unaware. Oblivious to the hand of God at work. God forgive me.

In our ministries, in the living out our faith, Jesus gave us some ways to approach it, so that we are more like him than Samuel, or Peter, or the Emmaus disciples.

  1. “Come unto Jesus like a child.” Do not have set expectations or demands, like a kid. Be open to what is or what may be.
  2. “When you have done it for the Least of These, you have done it to or for me.” Think of those we interact with as Jesus. Not like Jesus, or for Jesus. If we treat them as Jesus think of how special they would feel. And if they feel that loved, think of how they would respond.


My friend was not effective in Shockoe Bottom as he had his agenda and judgment, and looked with condemning eyes instead of compassionate eyes. God help us all when we do it that way. Jesus way is better. Amen 

Sunday, July 7, 2019

Year C Independence Day Observed 2019 Our Architect and Builder

Year C Independence Day (Observed) 7 July 2019
St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA
“Our Architect and Builder”

Collect: Lord God Almighty, in whose Name the founders of this country won liberty for themselves and for us, and lit the torch of freedom for nations then unborn: Grant that we and all the people of this land may have grace to maintain our liberties in righteousness and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Hebrews 11:8-16
By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he stayed for a time in the land he had been promised, as in a foreign land, living in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. For he looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God. By faith he received power of procreation, even though he was too old-- and Sarah herself was barren-- because he considered him faithful who had promised. Therefore from one person, and this one as good as dead, descendants were born, “as many as the stars of heaven and as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore.”

All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them.

Matthew 5:43-48
Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

It is good to be home. I love to travel, explore, make new friends, but there is a comfort in the familiar. We had a wonderful adventure, and we will be scheduling a covered dish to talk about it soon. Dick and Sandi made me promise before I left. Close to 12,000 miles later I have experienced things that are far bigger and grander than a boy from Newport News is used to having had happened.

In the usual seat of our Senior Warden and his wife, last week I had the King of the Ashanti Nation smile and affirm my words at the Anglican Cathedral in Kumasi, Ghana. When I found out for sure that the King was to be there, one of the members of our group quoted this verse for me: “When they bring you before the synagogues, the rulers, and the authorities, do not worry about how you are to defend yourselves or what you are to say; for the Holy Spirit will teach you at that very hour what you ought to say.” Luke 12:11-12 After that I remembered that even the King puts on his pants one leg at a time.

Ghana is a beautiful country and a gracious people. Looking at how things are there, and how things are here, the differences are striking. The similarities more so. But if we look at what is different or wrong, instead of finding our common ground, we can be frozen to inaction. In that line of thought, and hearing the words of our founding fathers in Facebook posts and comments it struck me what a venture of faith our American Experiment was.

The Puritans we call the Pilgrims (note the religious name there) were coming to create for themselves and for their kids a better life, after abuse and threats in England. They fled here for the betterment of their lives, in hopes and dreams for their children. This was an act of deep faith. So many died. So many faced unbelievable hardships, but in this new land they found welcoming faces and gracious hospitality. Was it always this way? No. No human interaction and especially institution is without its flaws, for we are a flawed and sinful people.

But as more came, they came in faith as well. Jamestown in 1607 sought wealth, but also to bring the faith they held so close and so dear to the New World. One of the first things they did was to build a church in the fort, and a priest came in the second year. This was an act of faith, to go into a barren wilderness (or so the Londoners thought) and start fresh, both for themselves and their Company.

And if you follow the trail of pilgrims and outcasts, miserable and hopeful souls who fled to our “teeming shores” you will see faith, stepping into the unknown over and over again.

We see from the winning side of history the founding fathers and uphold their bravery. But rarely do we speak fear of a band of farmers, lawyers, and tradesmen coming together to declare Independence from the world’s superpower at the time. They were committing Treason, if you were a Tory Loyalist. They were Revolutionaries, if you agreed with them. Benjamin Franklin in his wit and honesty said to his fellow rebels, “We must all, indeed, hang together, or we will, most assuredly, hang separately.” There is faith even in their fear, faith in the Providence of God to bring them to this place and side with them in a likely conflict.

And think about it, 243 years ago, in Philadelphia, 56 bold souls had the audacity to say that what brings us together is not necessarily blood, or lineage, or land. They stepped out on faith, and following the words of one of their youngest, Thomas Jefferson of Virginia, (Edward Rutledge of South Carolina was the youngest, by the way) and they had the  audacity to exert a statement of faith. Yes, faith.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. That whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.

They were saying that God gave us all certain things, and that this is apparent to any person with eyes. And that people set up Governments to make sure we were allowed to follow these God-given rights. And when the government does not enable and encourage this, and even hinders it, then that government should change.

This was an idea. They had the audacity, and the faith, to follow this idea. They tried to found a country on an idea. And this was a first. Others had imposed laws, or ideas, on a formed people, but here they were forming a people around a unifying principle, a statement of faith at that.

In our Hebrews reading today, the call of God to Abram was on a similar unique status. I loved the verse, “For [Abram] looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God.” And I think, and I admit it is a statement of faith, that the founding fathers thought the same of what they were doing. They dreamt of a city built on their ability to embody the ideals of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Abram stepped out on faith to follow the call of God to an unknown land amongst an unknown people.

Faith is exactly that. Stepping into the unknown and putting all our weight down.

Abram did it. The Founding Fathers did it. We all do it, when we live by faith.

Now living by faith is never perfect, nor is it easy. The hypocrisy of those same founding fathers which is “self-evident” to us can be what we focus on, but I would invite you not to stay there. They stepped out on faith, and they invite us to do the same. The American Experiment is not done. Far from it.

Yesterday at Hanover Courthouse there was a gathering of people holding a rally for the KKK. Seven and a half miles from here. Seven and a half miles. I traveled close to 12,000 miles to work on racial reconciliation and yet in our own backyard there is still so much work left undone.

We hold these truths, to be self-evident, that all people are created equal. Male and female, rich or poor, black or white or any of the fascinating hues God made us. We have come so far, thanks be to God. And we have so far to go, God help us.

Three nights ago I sat on the other side of the Atlantic, looking south from the coast of Mother Africa. As I heard the crashing waves, I thought of the souls that we thought were ours to use as we please, even while we claimed “that we hold these truths to be self-evident.” We can see it as a failure, or we can see it as first steps bringing the path to us today.

We use a phrase in our liturgy taken from St. Paul in Galatians: “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son…” You see, we follow a God who plays the long game. God paints God’s dream for the world across eons. God’s hand can move at a glacial pace. The call of God that Abram followed comes to us today as well. The longing for freedom and justice that the founding fathers felt, that I believe came from God, comes to us still today.

If the Architect and Builder of our faith and of our national vision is God, then we can rest assured of two things. “The One who began a good work in you is faithful to complete it.” Philippians 1:6 and “Unless the Lord builds the House, those that labor labor in vain.” Psalm 127:1

God bless us as we answer the call of faith. The one of Abram, and the one of this Nation built on a Notion. “For he looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God.”

Each and everything we do, each step of faith, each step toward justice and freedom for all, brings us closer to the design of our architect, a more brick that we have placed for our Master Builder. We are not done, and God is not done with us. God bless us, and may God bless America! Happy Independence Day! Amen