Sunday, October 27, 2019

Year C Proper 25 2019 Sola Fide

Year C Proper 25, 27 October 2019
St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA
“Sola Fide” 

Collect: Almighty and everlasting God, increase in us the gifts of faith, hope, and charity; and, that we may obtain what you promise, make us love what you command; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Luke 18:9-14
Jesus told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

In seminary, there is always a class that people need to take. It could be called Homiletics, or just Preaching. Whatever the title it is, it is about taking the myriad of ideas possible from our readings (whether we select them in the free church tradition or the lectionary in a more liturgical approach) and speaking to the people of God the Word of God. At our sister church, Shiloh Baptist, there is a wonderful mat at the pulpit that declares, “Preach so they’ll see Jesus.” I think that is most of Homiletics in a nutshell.

When I was in seminary, my “graded” sermon was on this passage. I know it very well. I have preached on this probably more than any other passage in my preaching career. I got a good grade on it, and poor Stephanie has heard my sermon on this 20 or 30 times. When in Seminary, one way to make some living money was to take preaching opportunities, mostly in rural areas, as they became available. And being busy with classes and part-time jobs, having a decent sermon I could pull out helped a lot.

I could do most of that sermon today, but I won’t. As I shared last week, I read Scripture so that it will read me, and I am so different from the young man who preached on this 25 years ago. Very different. (THANKS BE TO GOD!) In that sermon, the sermon was on the story. How the Pharisee would have been assumed to be the good and righteous one, and that the tax collector would have obviously been the cautionary tale, but the Gospel has done its work and our assumptions have reversed after 2,000 years. But when I read it now, much like last week, I look to Jesus and his intended audience as where my heart leads this week.

Last week, Jesus’ intent for the parable was to remind us to “pray always and to not lose heart.” This week we see it directed in very different way. Last week was on hope. This week asks us directly what exactly are we putting our hope in? Too many of us trust in our ability to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and take care of ourselves, particularly in regards to our spiritual life. Jesus points his parable to “some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.”

The parable speaks clearly that the one who was doing everything right could not have been more wrong. And the one who was doing everything wrong, with his humility, honesty, and attitude was made right. It is not in the doing, it is found in the faith. 

We are told that in his faith, Abraham was found to be righteous. It states it explicitly in Genesis, Romans, Galatians, and James. It is not about the actions, but the attitude. It is not about the laundry list of goodness, but the gratitude.

So often, especially as USAmericans, we want to use the active voice. I run. I pray. I act. I work. But there is no active voice here. We are the recipients of the action. I was run to. I was prayed for. I was acted upon. I was recreated. We are the recipients of the work of God in Christ. We are the indirect objects of Grace. That is why Jesus said of the Tax Collector: “I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” 

The Tax Collector knew he was not righteous, yet he was exalted. He knew he could not act on his own. His prayer, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”

There is hardly a man in history who knew better this idea of faith alone, Sola Fide, more than Martin Luther. In fact today is Reformation Sunday in much of the Protestant Church, and Martin Luther’s story of realizing that he could not make it on his own transformed him. Stuck on reading Romans, he wrestled mightily with Paul’s repeatedly coming back to the idea of our faith is where our righteousness comes from. It is said that before Luther was able to grasp this he drove his confessor crazy. He would go into confession, and before he walked a block, he had had another sinful thought which drove him back to the confessional booth. He knew it was not what God would have for us. And then he was able to receive Grace by faith in Christ. Not through acts of Penance or Piety. That was not and will never be enough. Grace by Faith was an epiphany. It was a revelation. It was the turning point in his life. He wrote: “When I discovered that, I was born again of the Holy Ghost. And the doors of paradise swung open, and I walked through.”

I think of the Pharisee, who by his accounting had everything and had no need for anything. He was justified in himself, and he was justified by himself alone. He looked around, and once again, by his accounting he was doing so much better than anyone else, especially by his own standards. He even had the audacity in his prayers to thank God that he is not like these thieves, rogues, adulterers, or especially like this tax collector over here. Luther had been a lot like the Pharisee, and finally, in coming like the Tax Collector to this idea of righteousness by faith, he knew that one of these approaches had to go. And 500 years later we are still sharing the Good News he found. Thanks be to God. It was hidden in plain sight throughout the Scriptures.

Now according to our planning, this is our Stewardship Season, and this is my Stewardship sermon. When I first saw that this was the text, I could not think of a way to ram Stewardship into this. But that is if I only thought about Stewardship being about money. And Stewardship is not about money. Stewardship is about being FAITHFUL, and this text is all about FAITH!

Faith is acting on our beliefs. I could believe any sort of thing, but without acting on it my supposed faith means nothing.

The Pharisee had faith in himself, that he could and would do the right thing, and has always done the right thing. The Tax Collector had faith in God, throwing himself on God’s love and mercy.

Stewardship is an act of faith. A statement of faith that all we have comes from God and is God’s. And God asks us to trust that of all that has been entrusted to our care is enough and that we can give a portion back. The biblical amount is a tenth of our produce. In farming times that was our actual crops. In these days it is our money. And it is not about an amount or a percentage, but about the faith that goes into it. We still teach the biblical tithe, 10%, as our aim.

In regards to our giving, if it is something you will not miss, it is not stepping out on faith. Now some faith communities have set levels, and you have to get a share or that level to be an active participant in the faith community. We do our process even by faith. We step out with a budget naming amounts before the pledges come in. We trust that the people of this community will respond in faith to what God is doing and where we are going. There is always some adjusting, but this community is very faithful and has been.

Next Sunday, November 3, is our ingathering and we will be blessing all the pledges that have come in and will be coming in that day. We will feast, or have a lunch anyway, in celebration of all that God has done for us and in response to what God is doing.  

Now a word of caution in this whole conversation. We do not give to gain God’s notice, nor do we give or work or believe to win God’s favor. If we do that, then we are no better than the Pharisee. In his list of accomplishments he said, “I give a tenth of all my income.” It was about Works and not about Grace. 

But neither is there inaction. If the Tax Collector who has been justified in his Faith by “leaning on the everlasting arms,” does not go home and start acting differently then it does not matter at all. Faith is what justifies, not works. It is not by works he is saved, but what we do is the result of the faith we have. Faith bears fruit, and fruit is the outcome of our faith. As Martin Luther said, “We are saved by faith alone, but the faith is never alone.”

We are a people of Faith, and because of our faith we sing, we pray, we disciple people of all ages in our programming, we have a free medical and dental clinic, we have a food pantry, we host a Stew, Brew, and Blue Grass Fest for the hundreds that are heading our way in a few weeks. We do this not for the outcome, but these outcomes are the response to the faith we have. “We are saved by faith alone, but the faith is never alone.” 

And our giving to the Church is the same. It is a thank you, a statement of hope and faith, a declaration of abundance, a humility in abundance. This week as you prepare your pledges to God, realistically think on what you have given this year, and what you can potentially give next year. Be realistic, but be faithful. What is one percent more? Are you working toward a tithe? Our giving units went down last year for many reasons, but what was so moving for me what that our giving amounts went up.

I give to this Church because I believe in who we are and where we are going. I believe God has brought us together “for such a time as this.” (Esther) I believe that we will shine the Light of God we have received and people will see our “good works and glorify our Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:16) And I can say I believe all day, but it is when I prove those beliefs by acting on them that my belief becomes real and is shown to be faith. 

Sola Fide! BY FAITH ALONE! Amen

Sunday, October 20, 2019

Year C Proper 24 2019 Always, and With Heart

Year C Proper 24, 20 October 2019
St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA
“Always, and with Heart”

Collect: Almighty and everlasting God, in Christ you have revealed your glory among the nations: Preserve the works of your mercy, that your Church throughout the world may persevere with steadfast faith in the confession of your Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Jeremiah 31:27-34
The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will sow the house of Israel and the house of Judah with the seed of humans and the seed of animals. And just as I have watched over them to pluck up and break down, to overthrow, destroy, and bring evil, so I will watch over them to build and to plant, says the Lord. In those days they shall no longer say:
"The parents have eaten sour grapes,
and the children's teeth are set on edge."
But all shall die for their own sins; the teeth of everyone who eats sour grapes shall be set on edge.

The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt-- a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, "Know the Lord," for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.

Luke 18:1-8
Jesus told his disciples a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. He said, "In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, `Grant me justice against my opponent.' For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, `Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.'" And the Lord said, "Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?"

Jesus loves us, wants what is best for us, celebrates our joys, grieves our sorrows, and will be with us through whatever this life may throw at us. Hold that. Claim it. It does not make the bad go away. Lazarus died and Jesus wept. Nor does God want you rich and prosperous. But God wants us to be faithful and in relationship, we are given today’s story very clearly to show us our “need to pray always and not to lose heart.” And it says as much. 

Pray changes us for things more than it changes things for us. I know godly people who suffer deeply, who go through the trials of Job and still find the ability to praise God. And like the unjust judge, I have met some who “neither [fear] God nor [have] respect for people.” This is a cautionary tale. DO NOT BE LIKE THIS JUDGE. And also, GOD IS NOT LIKE THIS JUDGE.

Prayer is a practice and prayer is an art. Prayer is when communicate with God. As simple as a “Wow!” at a sunset, or a “Why?” at a tragedy. And just as much it is a silence, a time to listen. Communication is a two-way street. We need to be heard, and we need to hear. Prayer is making time for both.

Interesting fact. The only character in all the Monty Python films? Do you know? God. And in the Holy Grail, God says very clearly to stop our sniveling! God does not want our drivel, but God wants our authentic real selves. Like the widow in the story demanding justice, even an unjust judge will pay attention just to get her quiet. God is not like the judge, but we should be like the widow. 

If it is on your heart, if it is on your mind, if it weighs on your soul, give it to God in prayer. One of the greatest strengths we have as the people of God is that we can take it, WHATEVER IT IS, to God in prayer. And as a group, we do not have a Book of Common Service, nor do we have a Book of Common Attitude, nor do we have a Book of Common Whatever. As Episcopalians we have a Book of Common Prayer. It is the hallmark of our faith, our approach, and our understanding of following Jesus.  One reason why we can absorb and include people from so many backgrounds is for this very reason. Baptists pray. Catholics pray. Presbyterians pray. Pentecostals pray. When we gather with so many from around Ashland here on November 4 it will be to pray. We are calling on our community to pray. 

We pray together. You probably have heard the cliche, “The family that prays together stays together.” My hope for this place, this space, this fellowship, your homes and families, and for you personally, is that the hallmark of who we are as a people is that we are a people of prayer. And Jesus says we are to pray always and not lose heart. 

The word we have for having heart might be a surprise for you. We often tie it to other things. It comes from the Latin through French, COURAGE. The French Coeur, from the Latin Cor. Courage may seem to be about bravery, but what is bravery, but getting back up when we are knocked down and taking the next step even though we walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Death. May our blood keep pumping and may we never stop moving forward, especially when the days are hard and evidence points away from faith.

There are times and places when we are called to go where we do not want to go, to do what we do not want to do. That tends to be the times when I am in direct and constant connection to God in prayer. In my mind and heart, the pleas do not cease. It is a constant stream. But that comes from a place of training.

One of my music professors in college talked about his day. He started his days with playing scales on his instrument for about 45 minutes. Daily. After decades you would think that he knew how to play scales. That is a beginner activity. But he explained it. By playing scales daily, his body and his instrument became one. When he looked at a hard and impossible (seemingly) piece of music, he asked “How can I play this? What is my approach?” I would look at it and say, “That’s impossible.” But because it had become so much a part of who he was and what he did, impossible was not even on the radar. His identity was in his horn.

Our prayers are much like that. I read the Bible daily not because I do not know it. I read it so it will read me. I have changed, much of that because it has changed me, and in so doing it reads me differently and so I read it differently. My prayers are the same. I bring who I am to God and God starts tinkering. 

Why think of prayer too often like a Vending Machine, or on On/Off switch. Yes. No. Put in a prayer, get out a reward. 

Pray is more for me like a sound board, and our prayers are like our Sound Check, our daily Sound Check where God can hear us, where we are and what we are dealing with, and then God starts working the board, a little more here, a little less there. Subtlety, nuance, always taking what we offer and make it better.

But how do we get to that place? 

Time. Day in, day out. Time with God. How can a relationship survive when no time or energy is given? God speaking to us through Scripture, prayer, meditation. Our spending time with God throughout our days.

A phrase that grates my nerves is “Quality Time.” It is even more disturbing because it is how we deal with our kids. Quality Time only happens through Quantity Time, the special moments only happen in the In-Between. We cannot schedule them, plan them, or create them. They happen when the planets unknowingly align. And just like with our kids, we never know when our Quality Time, our Mountaintop Moment, with our Father in heaven might happen. It only is available in the day in, day out magic of discipline and time. My music professor accomplished amazing feats on his horn because he made it a part of who he was and he found his identity in it.

Like my professor, a story is told of a maestro playing Carnegie Hall. After a prolonged standing ovation, the maestro left the stage with the thunderous applause still echoing. A fan, backstage, approaches the maestro and says, “I would give my life to play like you!” Surprised and taken aback, the maestro responds, “Oh, but I have!”

Jesus tells us this story to show us our “need to pray always and not to lose heart.” Even in closing he brings it back to that. “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

Jesus is getting to the fulfillment of that prophecy we read from Jeremiah. If we are still having to ask about right and wrong, we have not made God’s ways a part of us, of who we are. Like my professor and his trumpet, it has become an extension of who he is. Through his breath, that trumpet becomes a living, breathing thing. No accident that wind and breath and spirit are all the same word in both Hebrew and Greek. God is wanting for us to be so intimately connected to God’s ways that it is not something we do, it is our identity, an extension of who we were born to be…
The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt-- a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.
So often we are told that goal in life is to find out who we are. More and more I am seeing that the only way for me to do that is for me to seek the answer through that question by knowing first whose I am. I find my identity, meaning, purpose, and future in this relationship I have with the one who made me, the one who knows my highest and best, and guides me in right paths for God’s name’s sake. God’s law, written on my heart, enables and empowers me through thick and thin, the highs and lows, and will lead me, I trust, safely home. Amen.

Sunday, October 13, 2019

Year C Proper 23 2019 Faithful Trajectories

Year C Proper 23, 13 October 2019
St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA
“Faithful Trajectories”

Collect: Lord, we pray that your grace may always precede and follow us, that we may continually be given to good works; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7
These are the words of the letter that the prophet Jeremiah sent from Jerusalem to the remaining elders among the exiles, and to the priests, the prophets, and all the people, whom Nebuchadnezzar had taken into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon.
Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.

2 Timothy 2:8-15
A portion of today’s reading: "Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, a descendant of David-- that is my gospel, for which I suffer hardship, even to the point of being chained like a criminal. But the word of God is not chained. Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect, so that they may also obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus, with eternal glory..."

Luke 17:11-19
On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, they called out, saying, "Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!" When he saw them, he said to them, "Go and show yourselves to the priests." And as they went, they were made clean. Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. He prostrated himself at Jesus' feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. Then Jesus asked, "Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?" Then he said to him, "Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well."

If I asked each and every one of you what would be good news to you, I would probably get as many answers as there are people. Plus a few more for those who could not make up their mind.

God knows us. God knows the number of hairs on our heads, so God definitely knows our needs and our wants. In that I have no doubt. 

When someone hands me a hot dog, they probably know I need mustard. If someone gives me a sandwich, they probably know I need something to drink with it. When times are good, what is good is predictable. What we need is predictable. 

When I waited tables I needed to anticipate the guests’ needs before they had them, and when I did, I got great tips. They thought I was a mind-reader at times, when I did it well. Sometimes my tips showed that I did not. Good News for someone for whom things are going great is to let the good times roll. Keep on keeping on.

But today we are given some images of when times are dark, when things are going badly, and where is the Good News then? When we are in the middle of the storms of life, too often we have no idea which direction to head. We have no clue where to start, or what to ask for when we get help. But in all our stories, we see God knows! Some days, God only knows where the Good News is. In each of the portraits painted of following God in dark times from today’s readings, we see God knows the needs and paves the path for them to be made real.

I love the reading from Jeremiah. Richard joked with me the other day about having to read the Jeremiah passage at two services in a row, and about how dark they are. And often Jeremiah is exactly that. Judgment. Wrath. Coming Destruction. But when those passages are seen in isolation, it is easy to get a negative view of Jeremiah. But then we get to today’s reading. And Jeremiah is all about having hope.

Babylon had come in and conquered God’s people. They were stripped of their homes and properties. Last week’s Psalm reading was that horrible song calling to have the Babylonian babies smashed on rocks God’s people were so mad and vengeful. (As bad as it was, at least they were honest with God in their prayers. And that is what God wants, in my opinion!)

But what does Jeremiah say to those who have lost everything: family farms, generations of memories, the land God promised to them when they came out of Egypt? We will get to that. 

What made it even more egregious was that they were so tied to the land in their theology they thought that God would only hear their prayers if they drug a bag of dirt with them when they went off into Exile! But the smiting of Psalm 137 and the judgment of much of Jeremiah disperses here in Jeremiah 29. Here, instead of judgment, Jeremiah is saying, “Have Hope! Be Generous! Live Life!” To sum it up, Grow Where You Are Planted. It may sound cliche, but make Lemonade from the Lemons of Life. Or to quote him exactly:
Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.
When things are hard and dark, do not give up on God. In fact one of the bravest and most counter-intuitive acts in Dark Days is too live a life of Faith and Hope.  

It is human nature to avoid change. We think that the status quo is safe, and we cling so closely to what we have Now, then we are not looking to where we are headed. George Burns and Gracie Allen were partners in comedy and in life. When she died in 1964 she is said to have told George to keep living his life. “Don’t put a period where God has put a comma.” Jeremiah is saying that to his contemporaries and to us today. 

  • When things look hopeless, Have Hope. 
  • When we are scared, Fear Not.
  • When we want to call it quits, Trust in God.

Another image from today’s readings, St. Paul says to St. Timothy, “I am in Chains, but the Gospel is NOT!” St. Paul even rejoices that he can share the Gospel and spread the faith. That is his highest and best calling. 

In the Gospel reading, Jesus says to the Lepers, “Go show yourself to the Priest.” Now to show how hopeful that this is, to be declared clean and able to re-enter society, a priest had to make a declaration. And here is a moment of faith over senses. Jesus has not healed them... YET. Jesus says, “Go to the Priest.” And on the way, one of the 10 looks down. In Hope, in Faith, beyond all Common Sense, he looks down and sees that he has been healed. 

That is a huge shift when you have set your mind to a never-ending reality. His was a death sentence, and he had no expectation for it to be anything else, ever. But of all those who were sent to the priest, this one, the single one did NOT DO WHAT JESUS SAID TO DO. He went back to Jesus, he went back to the one who had sent him away. He went back to give thanks, thanks to Jesus and thanks to God!

Jesus knew the way this young Samaritan man needed to go. “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.” Faith is stepping out even when we do not know where our foot will fall. Faith is believing that our footing will be solid even when our path forward is dark.

St. Paul eventually was killed while imprisoned in Rome, but the Gospel he preached kept going, and we are probably here in Church today from the work he did. St. Paul had faith in the God who called and saved him, and in the power of the Gospel to seek and save the Lost.

The Babylonian Exile still was long and hard, but after a few generations God brought them home. Jeremiah’s family was able to come back and claim the land he bought in the previous week’s lectionary reading. And because of that Exile, Synagogues, Hebrew houses of prayer, were begun, and because of that we still have synagogues with us more than 1900 years later after the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed! The Hebrew faith is alive and well to this day. They kept the Faith of the Fathers and Mothers and God honored that.

We are called to have faith, too. When disease and darkness surrounds us, and we cannot imagine the light dawning, know that the God who was with you in the light is with you in the dark. And the light will come. We cannot see how. We may not know why. But he who began this work of you, is faithful to complete it. Now matter what we face, God is with us.

This is hard work I am asking you to do. This is Faith Work. To act in belief of things unseen, to defy what our days and times are screaming at us. “Fear, fear, fear!” But in closing I want to zero in on a sentence we skim over, but I think that that is where the Good News lies for most of us. After Jesus sends the lepers to the priest, it says this: “And as they went, they were made clean.”

In the living of our days, that is where I think our calling lies. It is the stepping out that we find our faith, it is in meeting God over the horizon that we see where God would have us be all along.

In a book I am reading about the Apollo missions to the moon, one of the greatest technical feats that had to be tested, proven, and successful was trying to get two vehicles in space to be able to rendezvous. There are no road signs or rest stops in space. We are trapped in 2-dimensional thinking, living in a world of flat maps and roads. The engineers had to think in 3-dimensional ways, trusting in equations and algorithms to make the impossible happen. You do not want to sit and wait where you are. You cannot. Because whether you feel it or not, in your spaceship you are hurtling ahead, maybe even tens of thousands of miles per hour. So is the ship you are trying to meet up with. So it is pointless spending a lot of time zeroing in on where you are, or where they are. Spend your time and energy on where they are heading, and where you need to head to be where they are going to be. That is the hard-to-envision work of outer space rendezvous. It is aiming two bullets to meet up over the horizon. It is often the same with our faith. 

God is preparing for you to meet up beyond what we can see, beyond what we can comprehend. God has done the math, worked out the trajectories, and what is over there is far better than you could hope or imagine. “And as they went, they were made clean.”

God knew the trajectories of Israel going off into Babylon, how they would come home and flourish and that they would set up a system that would last millennia. God knew the trajectory of St. Paul, and where his work would take the faith, even right here to Beverly Road. And God knew the trajectory of the lepers. 

And what may be Good News for us today, God knows our trajectories, and is preparing even now for what will be. May we have the courage to have Faithful Trajectories, and in so doing shine a light in these days we find ourselves in. Lead Holy Spirit, even into the Depths of God. Amen.

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Year C Proper 22 WED 2019 Go & Learn What This Means

Year C Proper 22 WEDNESDAY, 9 October 2019
St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA
“Go and Learn What This Means”

Collect: Almighty and everlasting God, you are always more ready to hear than we to pray, and to give more than we either desire or deserve: Pour upon us the abundance of your mercy, forgiving us those things of which our conscience is afraid, and giving us those good things for which we are not worthy to ask, except through the merits and mediation of Jesus Christ our Savior; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Matthew 9:9-17
As Jesus was walking along, he saw a man called Matthew 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 the house, many tax collectors and sinners came and were sitting with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” But when he heard this, he said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.”
Then the disciples of John came to him, saying, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast often, but your disciples do not fast?” And Jesus said to them, “The wedding guests cannot mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them, can they? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast. No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old cloak, for the patch pulls away from the cloak, and a worse tear is made. Neither is new wine put into old wineskins; otherwise, the skins burst, and the wine is spilled, and the skins are destroyed; but new wine is put into fresh wineskins, and so both are preserved.”

The heart of the thing. That is what Jesus is about. It is not about what we do. It is about how we do it. It is about why we do it. We can speak with the words of the smartest people and or sing with the voice of an angel, but if it is not done in love, it is a banging gong or a clanging cymbal. (I Corinthians 13:1 paraphrased) It is about how and why, not what.

The passage here is about the Calling of Matthew, a tax collector. You may already know that his profession was a surprise for the Righteous (actually self-righteous), because tax collectors were agents with self-serving practices of the despised Roman overlords. And once called, Matthew threw a party for his new Master and his old friends. How scandalous!

Those who considered themselves righteous used this to take aim at Jesus and his apparent hypocrisy. As I was preparing for today, I was caught by Jesus’ turn of phrase in retort: “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’”

And so I did. I pulled out the Greek and decided I would dig and see if there is something lying beneath the surface. The words Mercy and Sacrifice are used almost thirty times each (27 and 29 specifically) so they are not rare. Eleos means “mercy, pity, compassion.” and Thysian means “sacrifice,” noun, not verb. So a blood sacrifice. Or a burnt offering. Mercy, not sacrifice. Wow. As scandalous, and amazing, today as it was then. But wait, there is more. Jesus is quoting here!

Jesus is quoting Hosea 6:6, and making sure that things are translated well, I did the same deep dive into the Hebrew that led to the Greek we have in the New Testament. This is where is gets fascinating. The word we translate as mercy is one of my favorites in the Hebrew scriptures. Hesed is the word used to describe how God relates to us! Sometimes it is described as Mercy. Sometimes it is Covenant Fidelity. True to the promises made to loves us forever. That is Mercy, but so much more. We are called to be like God, merciful, which is so much more than doing our religious rites “just right.” The word Zebah also means sacrifice, a noun, either a burnt offering or a blood sacrifice so that is the same.

This year as we look at the leading and the prompting of the Holy Spirit in our lives and in our Church, we will need to pick up and examine these treasure hidden in plain sight. I have heard this phrase all my life, but now I see it so differently. A word can be so much more if we take the time to “Go and learn what this means…” When Jesus said that to the self-rightous, they would have known the reference. They would have known the implications he was saying. The way to keep covenant with God is not performing the rites and rituals, but to be like God in what we say and do. So Jesus is in effect saying that we should have bleeding hearts instead of giving bloody sacrifices. The nature of God, shown through the actions and teachings of Jesus, repeatedly shows us this.  The Divinity seen in the Crucifixion is in the Passion, the love shown by Jesus, not in the vengeful blood offering demanded by an angry God. What we do is not the issue; it is the How, the Why.

Our devotions, our prayers, our offerings, are not done to get God’s attention or to make ourselves superior or more worthy, but we pray and we worship to get in on the mercy freely given. We drink deep from the stream of Grace. We are blessed to be a blessing. Mercy. Compassion. Hesed. Not offerings. Not sacrifices. And the most liberating part is that we get to “Go and Learn…” it is in the practice of it, in the eventual “turning, turning that we come round right…”Lead us Holy Spirit into the very Depths of God! Amen!

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Year C Proper 21 WED 2019 By Our Fruit

Year A Proper 21 WEDNESDAY, 2 October 2019
St. James the Less Episcopal. Ashland, VA
“By Our Fruit”

Collect: O God, you declare your almighty power chiefly in showing mercy and pity: Grant us the fullness of your grace, that we, running to obtain your promises, may become partakers of your heavenly treasure; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Matthew 7:13-21
“Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.
“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles? In the same way, every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will know them by their fruits.
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.”

We begin looking through the focus of “Lead Holy Spirit Into the Depths of God”-- our new yearly theme. On Wednesdays, we have a little more time to play and unpack some things, to filter things through these ideas.

Jesus warns us that those who try to follow him will not be the crowd. We will have to get off the interstate and take the side route. We will need to avoid the main entrance and come in the service door. There will be large gatherings following false prophets. I saw an online satire article about a certain mega-church pastor who had started a new line of Pastor Suits under the title of “Sheep’s Clothing.” I snorted. Having heard some of this man’s talks, it is hard to call them sermons, I doubt he would catch the reference from today: false prophets are wolves in sheep’s clothing.

Then Jesus talks about us bearing fruit. It is how to know the good tree from the bad. What is its fruit? Bearing fruit is something we all do. But what kind of fruit do we bear?

Here is one of the key things about the life of following Jesus. For too long in my life and leadership in the Church, I have thought the fruit I was trying to bear was outcomes, product, stuff I could point to and say done. (Looking at through the Rohr book Falling Upward, this was not bad but more likely the first half of life.) But more and more I think that our fruit is far more intangible, and all the more necessary.

In Galatians, Paul unpacks the Fruit of the Spirit, and not a one of them is something we do, but rather it is who we are. It is the difference from being an apple farmer and being an apple tree. An apple farmer may produce apples. An apple tree cannot help but make apples. St. Paul gives us two lists in Galatians 5. The works of the flesh, and the fruit of the Spirit. The works of the flesh are things we do, or rather should not do. “Fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these.” [Gal. 5:19b-21a] Notice how many of these are about being divisive. In these divisive times, think on that. If people are working toward Us v. Them, no matter how righteous the cause, be wary.

But when we are the apple tree, when our DNA is structured in such a way for us to bear fruit, what does that look like? “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” It takes a long time and a lot of work to rewrite your DNA. Or as Jesus put it, “For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.”

This year, I trust that the Holy Spirit will lead us together into some deep places. Deep can be scary. Deep can also be awe-inspiring. We drove by the Luck Stone Quarry out in Goochland the other day. I tried to describe it to my kids. I remember going out there on a field trip with my school. Looking into it from the top, HUGE earth-movers at the bottom looked smaller than Hot Wheels cars. It is scary on the rim. But from the bottom looking up, the amount of work to make this inverted mountain, this hole as big as a mountain, was inspiring. It is all about how we view things.

If we are led by the Spirit, the nature and tenor of what we do will be like these fruit of the Spirit. In the midst of what is setting up to be some dark days, (I pray that they will not be but we all can see the clouds forming) living lives led by the Spirit will be all the more required and all the more necessary. May we pray it together, “Lead Holy Spirit, into the Depths of God!” Amen