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