Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Year C Proper 12 WED Overcoming Intolerable Systems

Year C Proper 12 WEDNESDAY, 31 August 2019
St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA
“Overturning Intolerable Systems”

Collect: O God, the protector of all who trust in you, without whom nothing is strong, nothing is holy: Increase and multiply upon us your mercy; that, with you as our ruler and guide, we may so pass through things temporal, that we lose not the things eternal; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Acts 16:16-24
One day, as we were going to the place of prayer, we met a slave-girl who had a spirit of divination and brought her owners a great deal of money by fortune-telling. While she followed Paul and us, she would cry out, ‘These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.’ She kept doing this for many days. But Paul, very much annoyed, turned and said to the spirit, ‘I order you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.’ And it came out that very hour.
But when her owners saw that their hope of making money was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the market-place before the authorities. When they had brought them before the magistrates, they said, ‘These men are disturbing our city; they are Jews and are advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe.’ The crowd joined in attacking them, and the magistrates had them stripped of their clothing and ordered them to be beaten with rods. After they had given them a severe flogging, they threw them into prison and ordered the jailer to keep them securely. Following these instructions, he put them in the innermost cell and fastened their feet in the stocks.

Mark 6:47-56
When evening came, the boat was out on the lake, and he was alone on the land. When he saw that they were straining at the oars against an adverse wind, he came towards them early in the morning, walking on the lake. He intended to pass them by. But when they saw him walking on the lake, they thought it was a ghost and cried out; for they all saw him and were terrified. But immediately he spoke to them and said, ‘Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.’ Then he got into the boat with them and the wind ceased. And they were utterly astounded, for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened.

When they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret and moored the boat. When they got out of the boat, people at once recognized him, and rushed about that whole region and began to bring the sick on mats to wherever they heard he was. And wherever he went, into villages or cities or farms, they laid the sick in the market-places, and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed.

I want to hold up two pictures from today’s readings. They both have something in common, which one might not notice at first glance, but could not be more important or more needed, then and now.

I want to talk today about Intolerable Systems, things set up to uphold the subjugation of individuals or groups. Unjust or Intolerable Systems are still here, and as long as humans run things, I am not sure they will ever go fully away. Just said the poor will always be with us as Jesus said, and that is a perfect example of an unjust system. Then and now.

When we see Paul and Silas in our Acts reading, they are preaching and an annoying enslaved girl who had a demon who told fortunes was hounding them. Out of spite, it seems, he casts out her demon. A good thing. Right?

But then Paul and Silas are drug to court, accused of disrupting the status quo, and beaten and shackled in jail. Now, they overturned a corrupt, unjust, and intolerable system. They kept a girl from spiritual and corporal enslavement. When they confronted the system, they took everything they had to crush those that worked against the “way things ought to be.”

When we confront unjust systems, the response will often be the same. “The church has no business in this subject.” Or, “You ought to stay in your lane.” The problem is that our culture has become SO POLITICAL that it confuses the Church being the Church (a.k.a. the force for justice, liberation, and peace in the world) for politics. (This came out a few hours after I wrote this, but is a perfect example of what I am talking about: link.)

When Jesus upset an unjust situation, much like the one Paul and Silas upset, he had a similar response. In Mark 5, we recently read about the Gerasene Demoniac. If you remember when he cast out Legion, the army of Demons, the man was excited by the people there asked Jesus to move on. But notice the response when he came back.
When they got out of the boat, people at once recognized him, and rushed about that whole region and began to bring the sick…
Without the fear and kickback of the initial response, we now see that the system that first asked him to leave is now actively and positively responding. They are flocking to him, and encouraging him to do what at first was so scary to them and the status quo.

We are now sitting on the other side of history on so many things we see as unjust. Slavery. The subjugation of women. The 40 hour work week. Public Education. What was once crazy and subversive is now the norm and expected. And in most of these areas, religious leaders were at the forefront making things “on earth as it is in heaven.” And we have so far to go. When we attack the systems that persecute, take advantage of, or enslave others we will have a heavy price to pay. We are afflicting the comfortable, and hopefully, comforting the afflicted. But once we stay the course and overcome the powers that be, we will be welcome and celebrated and our ministry will abound. Amen

Sunday, July 28, 2019

Year C Proper 12 2019 Let Us Pray

Year C Proper 12, 28 July 2019
St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA
“Let Us Pray”

Collect: O God, the protector of all who trust in you, without whom nothing is strong, nothing is holy: Increase and multiply upon us your mercy; that, with you as our ruler and guide, we may so pass through things temporal, that we lose not the things eternal; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Luke 11:1-13
Jesus was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, "Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples." He said to them, "When you pray, say:

Father, hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.
Give us each day our daily bread.
And forgive us our sins,
for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.
And do not bring us to the time of trial."

And he said to them, "Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, `Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.' And he answers from within, `Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.' I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs.

"So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!"

You are loved by God, and God wants the best for you.

That’s it. That’s my sermon.

That is what Jesus is saying here, but because we are not sure, because we doubt, because we see things that go against that idea in our lives we have to say it over and over and over again.

In the beginning of this interaction and the following teaching goes back to that question, “Does God even care? And if so, how can we get God’s attention?”
Often when I visit people ask for a prayer from me. I am often already praying quietly within. As St. Paul urged, pray without ceasing. A running dialogue is best, or a dribbling monologue will do. But your prayers are efficacious, too! God wants to hear what is on your heart! There is no prayer from you that can hurt. In fact, praying is often how I find out what I really think.

Now I am not speaking to all of you, but to those who are not directly affected, you are indirectly affected all the time. I am an external processor. I put my ideas out there, whirl them around, check out the problem areas, take it for a spin. It drove my wife crazy before we came to the understanding that just because I said it did not mean that I meant it. Or rather, I was externally processing my thoughts and ideas. She need not respond or react. I must say, that this is often how I see my prayer life.

God wants me, I believe, to put it out there. I need to hear what I am thinking, and if I do not do that I cannot deal with my “stuff.” Those areas where God needs to step in and do a lot of work. Often a simple way to see this is by what I call the shiny red bike.

Dear God, I want a shiny, red bike.

Now God could say, No. You do not need a shiny, red bike. You do not ride the blue one you have. But that’s not God. The more and more I pray for that shiny, red bike, the more and more I can see that my blue one is perfectly fine. I could use it more. In fact, I love riding bikes. I should do that more. And then guess what comes out of my mouth.

Thank you God for my perfectly wonderful blue bike. I am so appreciative that I have it.

You see what happened there? So often we think that prayer will change things for us. We WANT it. So we think that we should have it. But then God comes in, and does something more beautiful. God changes us for things.

It could be the shiny, red bike. It could be the diagnosis of cancer. It could be a sick and ailing friend. It could be whatever is weighing on your heart. God changes you for things, more than God changes things for you.

Internal processors, those who guard their thoughts and are sparing in their words, you need to pray, too. You need to say the words. It cannot, should not, be taken as a given. I love that seen in Fiddler on the Roof, when Tevya asks his long-suffering wife, “Do you love me?” At one point, Golde, the wife, even chalks up his silliness to indigestion, but then they sing:

Golde: Do I love him?For twenty-five years, I've lived with him,Fought with him, starved with him.For twenty-five years, my bed is his.If that's not love, what is?Tevye: Then you love me?Golde: I suppose I do.Tevye: And I suppose I love you, too.Together: It doesn't change a thing, but even so,After twenty-five years, it's nice to know…Songwriters: Berry Gordy Jr / Berry / Jr Gordy
Do You Love Me? lyrics © Bock Ip LLC, Imagem U.S. LLC, Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC, Universal Music Publishing Group

It is important to say the words, in life, and in prayer. It is so easy to take the most important things in our lives as “for-granted.”

And that is what Jesus is getting it in our prayers. We need to say the things. Even to God. Especially to God.

So when the disciples asked to learn to pray, Jesus answers. Now the differences you may notice in this version is that the one we most often say is from the King James Bible with its more formal language, and it is from Matthew’s Gospel from the Sermon on the Mount. Here is Jesus in Luke, in the New Revised Standard Version which has a few differences.
Father, hallowed be your name.Your kingdom come.Give us each day our daily bread.And forgive us our sins,for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.And do not bring us to the time of trial.
Let us break that down.

Father, hallowed be your name.
     (God, you are God and I am not. You are great, awesome, and holy.)
Your kingdom come.
     (I want your lead in this world and in my life.)
Give us each day our daily bread.
     (Supply my needs. I trust in you and your providence.)
And forgive us our sins,
     (When I stray, bring me home.)
for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.
     (I need to be as gracious in my life as you are in your dealings with me.)
And do not bring us to the time of trial.
     (Now I am with the Pope on this one. Our translations make some problems. He encouraged the         change to “Let us not fall into temptation.” Very similar to the prayer, “Guide my steps.”)

And in some ancient texts, not the oldest that we have, the phrase “but rescue us from the evil one” has been added. Some scribes may have tried to bring it closer to the Matthew account. Or we may have some texts that missed it in the even earlier, lost copies. But here we have the same idea, “God, draw me closer to you and your dream for the world.”

And with all that we can see how God just wants to hear from us. What is on our hearts and minds. Our worries, our fears, our hopes, our dreams, our lusts, our sins, our motivations. God wants to know. And once we allow the spotlight to shine on  every single part of us, the good, the bad, the ugly, we can begin to do the long, hard, important work that needs to be done. Prayer is like that. It is the opening of a door. Like vampires in the mythology, God needs to be invited in.

And that is why we can in confidence say and believe how Jesus teaches. Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.

Ask. You will receive. Now will you receive what you ask for? Maybe, even probably, not. But receive you will. My daughters ask for ice cream almost every meal. I have to remind them, “IT’S BREAKFAST!!!” But will I feed them? Yes. Is it what they ask for? No. But it is what they need.

Seek. Look for God, even in the worst, darkest, most hopeless situation. God is there. Psalm 139:8 If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
There is nowhere you can go, there is no situation in which you can find yourself, where God is not already there waiting for you. No worry. No fear. No temptation. You are not alone. Seek, and you will find.

Knock. And the door will be opened. One Thanksgiving, my mother came up from Newport News, and my daughters had not seen her in months. My youngest was so excited, and like a bulldog locking its jaw, once she gets something in her head it does not let go. She took her little toddler chair, and put it by the door. The parade came and went, and we were well into the dog show when my mom knocked at the door. My daughter had sat there for almost four hours, ready for the moment my mother arrived. If my daughter loves her grandmother that much, how much more does God love you? Knock. The door will be opened. Immediately. Exuberantly. Enthusiastically.

So prayer. There is nothing that is magical, persuasive, or influential that you can say.

  • But come honest, in your heart and approach. God already knows. Hold nothing back. 
  • And come open, open to the outcomes. Come with your request, and be ready to get what you need not necessarily what you want.
  • And come. Just come. Come to God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength. Pray for your neighbor and for yourself. 

Let us pray, “Our Father… [join with us…] Amen

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Year C Proper 11 WED 2019 Rebuke

Year C Proper 11 WEDNESDAY, 24 July 2019
St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA
“Rebuke”

Collect: Almighty God, the fountain of all wisdom, you know our necessities before we ask and our ignorance in asking: Have compassion on our weakness, and mercifully give us those things which for our unworthiness we dare not, and for our blindness we cannot ask; through the worthiness of your Son Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Mark 4:35-41
On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.” And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. He said to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

Sidenote: This is the first text I ever preached on when I was 16 years old. I preached on power and authority. If I remember right, the sermon was entitled "Power Up!" Now, when I read it, I see restraint, patience, love, and humility. Is it the years? Is it maturity? [Some might insert laugh there] Whatever. I am different, and God is still with me. Thanks be to God.

What is God like? We have so many competing ideas.

“What are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?” Psalm 8:4 reminds us.

Jesus is taking a nap. I have to admit, when I am awakened from a nap, I am at my grumpiest. I have chosen to go to sleep. I have not chosen to wake up. I think we get a very honest appraisal of the person and the situation when we see how they act when they wake up.

Going back to the original question, what is God like? On Sunday we had that wonderful verse from Colossians (1:15-16) “[Jesus] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him.” If we want to see what God is like, we look to Jesus. If we want to see what Jesus is really like, wake him from a nap.

And what is it we see?
They woke him up and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm.

When I get suddenly awakened from my nap, the offending party is usually the victim of my ire, but who does Jesus rebuke? What is confronted?

The wind. Plain and simple. Not the people. Not those who woke him up. But the wind.

They are worried. Jesus can see that. But he does not deal with the effect, but goes to the root, the source.

From this week’s Collect: “Have compassion on our weakness, and mercifully give us those things which for our unworthiness we dare not, and for our blindness we cannot ask…” Notice they do not ask for the wind to stop blowing. They complain, “Do you not care that we are perishing!” Jesus deals with the thing they did not dare ask, the thing in their blindness they did not ask. They had no idea he had that authority, that power over the wind. Their response, “Who then is this???”

So what is God like? The transitive axiom of equality, if you remember your basic algebra (A=B, and B=C, then A=C). If Jesus is the image of the invisible God, and Jesus does not rebuke the people here in their fear, then God is like that. Meeting us where we are, going to the source of our worries, not the effects.

I find that very comforting. In looking at the Greek for this passage. “Why are you so timid? How do you not have faith?” I think of all the times that could be said of me. I me of little faith. The Rebuke is not on me, though. When I am in the boat with Jesus, I can weather any storm. And even when I am worried and distracted like Martha on Sunday or the disciples today, Jesus cares, Jesus responds, and Jesus calls me to faith. Amen

Sunday, July 21, 2019

Year C Proper 11 2019 Worries Distractions & the Better Part

Year C Proper 11 21 July 2019
St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA
“Worries, Distractions, and the Better Part”

Collect: Almighty God, the fountain of all wisdom, you know our necessities before we ask and our ignorance in asking: Have compassion on our weakness, and mercifully give us those things which for our unworthiness we dare not, and for our blindness we cannot ask; through the worthiness of your Son Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Colossians 1:15-28
Christ Jesus is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers-- all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.
And you who were once estranged and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his fleshly body through death, so as to present you holy and blameless and irreproachable before him-- provided that you continue securely established and steadfast in the faith, without shifting from the hope promised by the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven. I, Paul, became a servant of this gospel.
I am now rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ's afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church. I became its servant according to God's commission that was given to me for you, to make the word of God fully known, the mystery that has been hidden throughout the ages and generations but has now been revealed to his saints. To them God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. It is he whom we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone in all wisdom, so that we may present everyone mature in Christ.

Luke 10:38-42
As Jesus and his disciples went on their way, Jesus entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord's feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, "Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me." But the Lord answered her, "Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her."

Martha often gets a bad rap. We need our Marthas. They get the job done. I am always wary as I come to this story, because it can so easily be misconstrued. Jesus did not want Martha to do less, necessarily, but rather to put first things first. We need the Marthas to get things done, and for the Marys to get it in gear when the time comes.

This reminds me of a story. A man walks into a psychiatrist’s office, and says, “Doc, you have to help me. My wife thinks she’s a chicken.” The doctor, surprised says, “Well bring her in so we can figure this out and fix the situation.” The man paused, and then said, “And by fix you mean to have her stop thinking she’s a chicken?” “Yes!” replied the psychiatrist. Another pause. “Then what will we do for eggs?”

We want the benefit without the cost. We want our Marthas to keep plugging and chugging, but Jesus wants us all whole. He wants the Marthas to not be unhealthy, and the Marys to jump in at the appropriate time. Jesus knows about getting things done, and a healthy way to do it. From his three year ministry, we are still here today. And as we read in the beautiful opening to Colossians:
Christ Jesus is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers-- all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.
Jesus is about the doing. But to get the job done, we have to come at the task in a healthy and appropriate way. Burning ourselves out, burning bridges with our sisters and brothers, feeling unloved and spent, is NOT how God wants us to live this one precious life we have been given.

What we see here is a burnt out Martha. She is hurting.  And hurting people hurt people. They may not mean to, or they may be full of malice wanting to lash out at the world. When I was doing lifeguard training so many decades ago, one of the things they taught us was that if someone is drowning, all rational thought is gone. They may try to climb up a rescuer just to catch one breath so desperate is their need. The same can be said of so many who are hurting who do much the same thing. They are so desperate to maintain normal that they can run all over people do keep up the appearance of having their act together.

Martha gets a bad rap, too often. She is doing exactly what she was expected to do by society, and I have to admit, we need Marthas. They keep the world going, the dishes washed and the grass cut. Duty, a word we do not use very much any more, is vital and needed. It keeps us going when we do not have it in us to do the thing which needs to be done.

I was serving a church, and got the unfortunate news that I was about to be laid off. But that did not stop the need for me to keep doing my job till the last day. Giving and attendance had gone down, and the numbers could not justify having an associate any longer. Now this church had a vibrant and unbelievable food ministry. They served more than 100 families weekly, year-round. It was a staggering amount of work each and every week. In my final days, I was having a bit of a pity party. I did not want to go to work. It depressed me having to pack up shop. It hurt. Now on Food Pantry days in the summer, I often took my kids in so they could help. There were lots of jobs they could do, and I liked seeing them helping and learning to give, even in small ways. Driving in that morning, I got a little too honest, and said out loud, “I really don’t want to go to work today.” Immediately my youngest fired back, “But they need us!” Duty, even out of the mouth of someone who did not need to use two hands to count her age, is a good thing, it motivates us and keeps us going.

But often, tired people shift. Duty becomes drudgery, and that is where obligation rears its ugly head. Martha had gotten to that point. She was hurting, wanting some aid, so she appeals to a higher authority, Jesus. “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” Drowning people drown people. Hurting people hurt people. Duty or obligation was keeping Martha from doing what she really wanted to do, sit at Jesus’ feet and learn from the Teacher. She did not want to be up and doing, but she also did not want her sister getting to do what she wanted to be doing herself if she could not. Hurting people hurt people. She decided to pull her sister down to her level, instead of stepping up to be where she wanted.

Duty, while helping us get things done, while helping things keep going, there are times and seasons when we are called to something higher, better. You do not wash dishes when the guest of honor is present. There will be time to do that later. As Jesus told Martha, “Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.” Bringing Mary down will not help Martha get up. I have said this often, and I will repeat it for years to come because I need to constantly be reminded. Watch Jesus. In his interactions, over and over, he invites people to reframe and step up. He does not get mired in bringing down, he reframes the situation, and encourages folks to step up to something higher, something better. Mary and Martha, you and me.

When Jesus informs Martha of where she is getting stuck, I almost feel like he is talking to our society. The need to be needed makes us feel important. The cult of celebrity and being known makes us feel important. Our society preaches a gospel of success, which is the foundation of the American heresy, the Prosperity Gospel. God wants you rich, and happy, and beautiful. Martha thought her busy-ness would get her praise. But Jesus saw through it. “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things.” That is not what he wants for you. Not for me. Not for Martha.

I saw a priest friend of mine posted this quote this week from the book Keeping in Tune with God, and it fit so well with this week’s text:
A hectic schedule can be a misplaced effort to earn respect and affection, which invariably leads to exhaustion and spiritual aridity. Prayer gets squeezed in between meetings and appointments or dwindles altogether. A desire to serve God morphs into a flurry of activity that serves a hungry ego. The result is burnout. Keeping in Tune with God: Listening Hearts Discernment for Clergy (p. 8)

Ministry never ends. It could go on, 24/7/365. But our Lord modeled for us healthy servant leadership. He modeled for us washing each others’ feet, as well as going off alone to pray. He modeled for us to let ourselves be interrupted by the stranger in the crowd, and then getting back to the urgent matter at hand. The advice for the passenger on the plane is often the same one we need to hear. Put your own oxygen mask on first so you have the ability to help someone else. Martha jumped to the task at hand, and then complained she could not breathe.

The call of God is for us to be faithful, not successful. We are called to follow, and trust that the path we are on will be blessed and fruitful, though we may not see it. When the founders of this church set out 150 years ago, little could they imagine the acres of beautiful land we have, the facilities where we can bring glory to God. But they started down a path they could not see the end of. A wise man plants a tree that they will never sit under, digs a hole for a pool in which they will never swim. When we get worried and distracted, maybe we need to accept Jesus invitation to sit at his feet, bask in his love and teachings, and remember why it is we do what we do.

When I was feeling sorry for myself, worried about my calling, my vocation, my wife and kids, I felt a bit like Martha. Worried and distracted, and said I did not want to go to work. Duty was done, and obligation had reached its end. I did not want to have to work the food pantry or deal with anybody. But out of the mouths of babes, wisdom emerged. “But they need us!” It was not out of duty, nor out of obligation. It was out of a true sense of care and concern. It was said out of love for the Least of These. If she could not show up, she could not help. And if she could not help, people would not eat.

Reframe, and step up. Jesus can speak to us in so many ways. Jesus can invite us even through the mouths of the very ones we are given charge over. Choose the better part. Amen.

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