Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Year A Proper 8 WED 2020 You Have (NOT) Arrived

Year A Proper 8 WEDNESDAY, 1 July 2020

Video Service from St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA

“You Have (Not) Arrived” 

Collect: Almighty God, you have built your Church upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief cornerstone: Grant us so to be joined together in unity of spirit by their teaching, that we may be made a holy temple acceptable to you; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Matthew 21:33-46

‘Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watch-tower. Then he leased it to tenants and went to another country. When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce. But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. Again he sent other slaves, more than the first; and they treated them in the same way. Finally he sent his son to them, saying, “They will respect my son.” But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, “This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.” So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?’ They said to him, ‘He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.’

Jesus said to them, ‘Have you never read in the scriptures:

“The stone that the builders rejected

   has become the cornerstone;

this was the Lord’s doing,

   and it is amazing in our eyes”?

Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom. The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.’

When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them. They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet.

This is a harsh parable, one hard to hear. It is full of assumptions. Those who assume to know who is in. Those who assume to know who is out. This is where I want to spend my time this morning.

The story is a simple one, tenant farmers choose to ignore the fact that they are not the ones in charge. They work the land, they do not own the land. Their obesience belongs to the the owner. And yet, they refuse all the representatives sent, even and up to the son of the Owner. They kill him and assume that they can claim his inheritance and keep the land as their own. Little do they realize that they have crossed the Rubicon, there is no turning back. And, little do they realize that their fate is sealed, and their death is imminent. A sad, hard story. It is a parable of judgment. It drips of it.

Those in power, the chief priests and the Pharisees, were well aware that Jesus was claiming that they were usurpers who would be replaced.

They despised him. And he despised their hypocrisy.

Jesus quotes back to them Psalm 118:22-23, with:

“The stone that the builders rejected

   has become the cornerstone;

this was the Lord’s doing,

   and it is amazing in our eyes”?

It was written long before he was born, that those who think of themselves having arrived, have missed it entirely. The greatest stumbling block in the life of faith is assuming that we have no further to go. 

Jesus came to confront the powers that be to claim that God wants us righteous and holy, not comfortable and content. And it rears its ugly head here.

When I was serving a church in Northern Virginia, I once saw a church who had hung in its narthex/foyer a banner that read, “You have arrived.” I thought to myself, how sad. It is either delusional, wrong in its understanding of sin, or just vane. 

As wonderful as our facility is, and as many a good thing as we use it for during normal times, we are not a center where one comes to arrive. We are a filling station enabling you to get on your way with God. Via con Dios! Go with God!

These times remind me all the more the truth of that statement. We miss each other, and we miss this place. It may be a filling station, but many of us are running on empty. Hear and know this, you are loved, you are missed, and we are here for each other, just not as readily accessible as face-to-face. Our muscle memory has not gotten used to how these times are going to be different.

I want to take one more venture into today’s story. At the beginning, it mentions how much time, effort, and expense the owner put into this property. He “planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watch-tower. Then he leased it to tenants…” God invested in us. God wants us to succeed. God wants us to flourish. As we are promised, “He who began a good work in you, is faithful to complete it.” Hold to that. Especially in days of doubt and fear. Our journey is not over as long as there is breath in our lungs. Faith is not about Arrival, but about the Journey we find ourselves on. We never know what vista the next curve may bring. Amen.

Sunday, June 28, 2020

Year A Proper 8 2020 Represent

Year A Proper 8, 28 June 2020

Video service from St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA 


Collect: Almighty God, you have built your Church upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief cornerstone: Grant us so to be joined together in unity of spirit by their teaching, that we may be made a holy temple acceptable to you; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Matthew 10:40-42

Jesus said, “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet's reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous; and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple-- truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.”

In Antioch in Syria, the followers of the Jesus way of connecting with God were first called Christians. It was derogatory, a slur. It was meant to belittle and demean. But the Christians took it as a badge of honor.

The understood, deep down in their souls, that they had taken on the name of Christ, and in so doing represented him in what they did, how they did it, and the impact and effect it had on people. The claimed the name as a badge of honor, humbly we hope, but an identifier nonetheless.

We, too, take on the name of Christ in baptism, representing him whether we think on it or not. I have told this story before, but when I was serving as a missionary in West Germany in 1989, the wall came down. I was working with the West German Baptists which had two parts, English-speaking for mostly expatriates living there, and German-speaking Baptists. When the wall came down, immediately the East German Baptists and the West German Baptists started talking about joining together. What happened was interesting. The East Germans who had nothing, but the spunk to stand up to an authoritarian regime, wanted nothing to do with the West Germans. They never had to represent Christ in any meaningful way, even to the point of torture and death. The East Germans did. They understood the price of taking on the name of Jesus.

In my article for our newsletter a few weeks ago, I mentioned how much it means to me to Represent the Diocese in official capacities for different things. In my work with the Triangle of Hope, I strive to not do anything that would bring dishonor to our Diocese nor to our Bishop. I understand that it is not me being honored or recognized. I am the placeholder. I am the symbol of the relationship. The Diocese cannot travel. I can. I stand there in the name of the Bishop. 

At the beginning of Paul’s letters to the various churches, he greets them in the name of Jesus Christ. He gets it. As Teresa of Avila wrote: “Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world. Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are his body. Christ has no body now on earth but yours.” We are here in the name of Christ; we are the body of Christ. 

When I stood before the Archbishop of West Africa, our dear friend his eminence Daniel Sarfo, I was there in Christ’s name and our Bishop’s, and said as much. When I stood before the King of the Ashante, I said as much. Literally, “I bring greetings from the Diocese of Virginia and our Bishop Suffragan Susan Goff…” I had shined my shoes and had on my best suit. I wanted to be at my best because I was there to represent.

I heard this story about 15 years ago, when much of the Church was looking around for ideas on best practices and often turned to business. A pastor’s conference brought in a big name business consultant, famous for some books he had written. He was intimidated because he had little or nothing to say to these pastors not claiming to be a believer himself. But heading to the conference he spent some time in the bookstore at the airport looking at the titles in the Religion section. On the Christianity shelf it was all about belief, or ideas. On the Buddhism shelf, it was all about practice. So when he got to the conference, that is what he talked about. Somewhere along the way, the Church has convinced itself that right thinking will lead to right behavior. While Buddhism acknowledged that right practice brings proper belief. 

St. Francis put it this way, “Preach at all times, when necessary use words.” Or as we say in the Episcopal Church and across the Anglican Communion, “How we pray shapes our belief.” We have a book of common prayer, because we believe it leads to proper thoughts and actions. We use these words because they help us Represent, both ourselves in Christ’s name to others, and Christ to us.

I take very seriously the role I play as your rector, in my dealings with you, in my dealings with the Diocese, with my dealings around town. I receive a bulk of the honor because of the hard and generations-long work that St. James the Less has done in this town representing Jesus Christ. A lot gets projected on this collar. Most of it good, very good.

As our reading reminds us today, Jesus said, “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.” On Wednesday, it was the Nativity of St. John the Baptist, and I said that we are also Preparers of the Way, Forerunners of Christ. We are called to do that, too. And while doing that important work, those that welcome us, welcome in the one we represent. Thanks be to God!

My passport allows me entry into countries representing the power and authority of the United States government. It opens doors, in normal times, for me because of what it represents. It is a gift and an honor to carry this piece of the authority of this nation. I do not carry it lightly, especially since I recognize that the only reason I have it is because of an accident of my birth. I had no say in where I was born, or even if I was to be born. But I do have a say in how I use this gift that I have been given.

How much more important is that name I have chosen to take on, in baptism and confirmation, I chose to identify with Christ, with all the rights and responsibilities appertaining thereunto. How do you represent? Would a stranger be able to tell that you are different by how you act, even if they could not put a finger on it that it was Jesus? How about those closest to you, who see you day in and day out. What would they say if asked, “How do you know that you are Christ’s own?” In all our lives, may we represent, to Christ’s honor and glory, now and forever! Amen 

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Year A Proper 7 WED 2020 Names and Forerunners

Year A Proper 7 WEDNESDAY, 24 June 2020

Video Service from St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA

“Names and Forerunners”

Collect: Almighty God, by whose providence your servant John the Baptist was wonderfully born, and sent to prepare the way of your Son our Savior by preaching repentance: Make us so to follow his teaching and holy life, that we may truly repent according to his preaching; and, following his example, constantly speak the truth, boldly rebuke vice, and patiently suffer for the truth's sake; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Luke 1:57-80.

The time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son. Her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown his great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her. On the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to name him Zechariah after his father. But his mother said, “No; he is to be called John.” They said to her, “None of your relatives has this name.” Then they began motioning to his father to find out what name he wanted to give him. He asked for a writing tablet and wrote, “His name is John.” And all of them were amazed. Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue freed, and he began to speak, praising God. Fear came over all their neighbors, and all these things were talked about throughout the entire hill country of Judea. All who heard them pondered them and said, “What then will this child become?” For, indeed, the hand of the Lord was with him.

Then his father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke this prophecy:

“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,

for he has looked favourably on his people and redeemed them.

He has raised up a mighty saviour for us

in the house of his servant David,

as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,

that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.

Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors,

and has remembered his holy covenant,

the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham,

to grant us that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies,

might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness

before him all our days.

“And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;

for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,

to give knowledge of salvation to his people

by the forgiveness of their sins.

By the tender mercy of our God,

the dawn from on high will break upon us,

to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,

to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

The child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day he appeared publicly to Israel.

Names are important things. We wrestled long and hard to name our children. Both biblical, but neither are well known or in common usage. But for us it was the meaning.

John is a Hebrew name meaning “God is Gracious.” Beautiful. Just beautiful. Names are so important. 

We are struggling as a country on names right now. At the school board here in Hanover last night there was a debate on names of schools and mascots. Names, as I have said, are important things.

I love how the friends of Elizabeth and Zechariah assumed they would go with the longstanding tradition of naming the baby after the father, or at least using a family name. They both rejected that idea. The part of the story left out in today’s reading is Zechariah’s vision in the Temple telling him he would be a father and that his son’s name was to be John. The archangel Gabriel said because he doubted, Zechariah would not be able to speak until all was fulfilled. With the birth and affirmation of the unique naming, all was fulfilled and Zechariah spoke, and prophesied at that!

We see the importance of names, but more so, the call of God is so important. John had a unique and special role. He was the Preparer of the Way, the Forerunner of the Messiah. He tilled the soil of the people’s hearts so that Jesus could harvest. This was no small task. And like many a prophet, he was killed for his efforts. 

But this morning, as we look to John, let us also embrace his roles. Let us bear the importance and weight of naming. When people talk about being lucky or coincidence, maybe we through the eyes of faith see the hand of God. Will we name it in the moment? Do we dare? Often, when I find myself in those moments I may temper it a bit, “Maybe God was at work here?” or “Thank God! Wow, that is wonderful!” Naming, attributing to God, is an important role in shaping people’s perceptions.

Also, God is everywhere at work. I truly believe that. But we also are forerunners. Maybe not to the work of God, but in the opening of eyes to see with eyes of faith. When we name God as the worker, we run ahead of people’s encounter with the risen Lord. We prepare a way, for new thinking, new hope, new belief. Wow! How humbling, how wonderful.

May what was said of John be said of us as well:

“And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;

for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,

to give knowledge of salvation to his people

by the forgiveness of their sins.

By the tender mercy of our God,

the dawn from on high will break upon us,

to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,

to guide our feet into the way of peace.”


Tuesday, June 16, 2020

Year A Proper 6 WED 2020 Metaphorically Great

Year A Proper 6 WEDNESDAY, 17 June 2020

Video service from St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA

“Metaphorically Great”

Collect: Keep, O Lord, your household the Church in your steadfast faith and love, that through your grace we may proclaim your truth with boldness, and minister your justice with compassion; for the sake of our Savior Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Matthew 18:1-9

At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, ‘Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?’ He called a child, whom he put among them, and said, ‘Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.

‘If any of you put a stumbling-block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea. Woe to the world because of stumbling-blocks! Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to the one by whom the stumbling-block comes!

‘If your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to enter life maimed or lame than to have two hands or two feet and to be thrown into the eternal fire. And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into the hell of fire.

I have always loved this passage. The images are not just strong, they are stark. They blatantly spell out what we are supposed to do, and what we are not. However, even here, especially here, we see that metaphor rules. Jesus was not about legalism. He paints a picture, but he does not draw a line. When I used to run in more conservative circles, too often I would run into folks who said they took “the word of the Lord literally.” I found it fascinating not of them had one hand, one foot, or one eye. Even they understood metaphor. It was a shame they had a hard time on the stuff he said literally (eg. Love your neighbor.) figuratively, and the stuff he said figuratively (Hate your father and mother…) literally. But none of them in my circles plucked out an eye, or chopped off a hand.

But when it comes to the metaphor of the Child, we see a glimpse into the heart of Jesus. 

A story is told of a little boy who did not know any better, but spent his summer teaching himself how to ride his bike along the top of his fence. Every day, every moment he could, he went back and forth, pedaling and balancing, and finally got it down pat. Later in the summer, an adult saw him practicing, and they told the boy, “Hey, don’t you know you cannot ride on top of a fence?!?!” And from that day forward, he never could. 

For our Buddhist brothers and sisters, they often speak of how discipleship (our word not theirs) requires the attitude of having a Beginner’s Mind. Shoshin, I trust I am saying that correctly. Whenever one approaches something they wish to learn, there should be an openness, eagerness, and lack of preconceptions. That makes for a great learner. And remember how this started, the adult question of prestige, honor, and position: “Who is the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven?” That is an ego question. And Ego, whether in Buddhism or Christianity gets in the way. Ego worries about the Finish Line, and being a Winner. The Soul worries about the Journey, and trusting the one guiding the way. 

Jesus encourages us to be like children, curious, precocious, proud that we are learning, and not worrying about rank or position. A child knows she is low on the totem pole so she does not even bother with it, if she recognizes it at all. That is why we are encouraged, nee, commanded to come, humble like a child. We are commanded to welcome this humble, child-like, Beginner’s Mind disciples.

And when we welcome these eager learners, we cannot hinder them with Stumbling Blocks. Jesus says Woe to those who do that. Better to drown ourselves (METAPHOR!!!) than to set up Stumbling Blocks.

And finally we get to losing something to gain something better. Jesus makes the image of actually losing something vital for the greater good. As I said, this was metaphorical, and probably hyperbole to boot. But underneath, Jesus is showing us how important, how vital this all is. We are talking about the Kingdom of God! We approach it humbly. We encourage others to be their best! We do not let anything hold us back!

How do we get to be Greatest in the Kingdom? We do not worry about that. We worry about the Kingdom, and let the Kingdom worry about the Greatest. Amen

Year A Proper 6 2020 Sending Us Out

Year A Proper 6, 14 June 2020

Video Service from St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA

“Sending Us Out”


Keep, O Lord, your household the Church in your steadfast faith and love, that through your grace we may proclaim your truth with boldness, and minister your justice with compassion; for the sake of our Savior Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Matthew 9:35-10:23

Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”

Then Jesus summoned his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness. These are the names of the twelve apostles: first, Simon, also known as Peter, and his brother Andrew; James son of Zebedee, and his brother John; Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus; Simon the Cananaean, and Judas Iscariot, the one who betrayed him.

These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment. Take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts, no bag for your journey, or two tunics, or sandals, or a staff; for laborers deserve their food. Whatever town or village you enter, find out who in it is worthy, and stay there until you leave. As you enter the house, greet it. If the house is worthy, let your peace come upon it; but if it is not worthy, let your peace return to you. If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town. Truly I tell you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town.

“See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Beware of them, for they will hand you over to councils and flog you in their synagogues; and you will be dragged before governors and kings because of me, as a testimony to them and the Gentiles. When they hand you over, do not worry about how you are to speak or what you are to say; for what you are to say will be given to you at that time; for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you. Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death; and you will be hated by all because of my name. But the one who endures to the end will be saved. When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next; for truly I tell you, you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes.”

Good morning! So glad to have you with us today! Today we are going to be taking a look at the pep talk, the Coach’s huddle, whatever you want to call that Jesus gave to his followers before he sent them out. There are still some rules that make total sense, and some we dismiss at our detriment. I would encourage you to look at them closely. They are not hard to understand. But, they are hard to do.

But today I want to zero in on how we are supposed to be about the work at hand. Jesus speaks to our attitude and our responses to being wronged. One of the axioms of life I hold to, is that most people assume that they are the normal. Even a mentally disturbed person assumes that they are normal. Liars think most people are liars. Cheats think most people are cheats. Jeffrey Dahmer thought he was normal. Upbeat positive people think that most people are upbeat and positive. When those bubbles get burst we see cynics emerge. And Jesus gives us a good warning. A Rock paraphrase here, this is not from the Greek:

If you follow the instructions I have given you, people will think you are naive fools. They may be a bunch of skunks I am sending you into, but don’t let their stink get on you.

Now Jesus’ words were about sheeps and wolves, snakes and doves. And what Jesus is telling us is know how to play the game, and do not follow those rules. In other words, do not sink to the level of those who need to see a way out.

One of the huge turning points in the evangelization of the Roman Empire, when they tortured the Christians publicly and fed them to the lions, even, they were not afraid. Even at the point of death, these new believers had something unknown, unheard of to most Roman citizens. They had hope. And in the heart of every human being is a longing for hope. So much of the fear I hear bandied about these days stems from that very fact, people do not have hope. 

I quote this a lot, but even if I said it daily it would not be enough. From Hebrews 11: 1: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”

When Jesus was sending his apostles out, he basically told them to have faith. When we have our Stewardship campaigns yearly, at least while I have been here, we have said to have faith. When we roll over in the night with our worries, we have been told to have faith.

Don Bruce, one of our own whose birthday happens to be today, told me once how when he could not go to sleep he started saying the Jesus Prayer we did as part of our Lenten Series two Lents back. You do it with your breathing, Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior, Have Mercy, On Me, A Sinner. And he said, sure enough, he just went back to sleep. 

When I had my surgery, the nurse took my blood pressure, then took it again, then had someone else take it. She asked me what it normally was, and it is right where it should be most of the time, but it was not elevated at all! She asked me, “You do realize you are about to have surgery, right? Most people’s blood pressure is pretty elevated right before they go in.” Now what she did not realize was that I had been doing my Jesus prayer for about twenty minutes, holding onto that faith even more because I felt anxious. I now have biomedical evidence, prayer works. Faith works. Feelings are fleeting; Faith, real, true, dyed in the wool faith, lasts now, tomorrow, and forever.

Friends, we have been sent out. We have been asked to have faith when we are out. We have been asked to keep playing by the rules we have been taught, not to lower ourselves to the skunks and their stink. But even in the midst of them, we can shine the light of faith that we have. People notice. I wish I could show you the look on my nurse’s face from that day! Jesus warns us that things could get bad, but know this, our side wins. God will be glorified. Your faith plus God is bigger than ANYTHING you could ever face. Thanks be to God! Amen

[Dramatically walk camera out the door of the Church]

Tuesday, June 9, 2020

Year A Proper 5 WED 2020 For Freedom

Year A Proper 5 Wednesday, 10 June 2020
Video service from St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA
“For Freedom”

The Collect: Almighty and everlasting God, you have given to us your servants grace, by the confession of a true faith, to acknowledge the glory of the eternal Trinity, and in the power of your divine Majesty to worship the Unity: Keep us steadfast in this faith and worship, and bring us at last to see you in your one and eternal glory, O Father; who with the Son and the Holy Spirit live and reign, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Galatians 5:1-15
For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.
Listen! I, Paul, am telling you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no benefit to you. Once again I testify to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obliged to obey the entire law. You who want to be justified by the law have cut yourselves off from Christ; you have fallen away from grace. For through the Spirit, by faith, we eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working through love.
You were running well; who prevented you from obeying the truth? Such persuasion does not come from the one who calls you. A little yeast leavens the whole batch of dough. I am confident about you in the Lord that you will not think otherwise. But whoever it is that is confusing you will pay the penalty. But my friends, why am I still being persecuted if I am still preaching circumcision? In that case the offence of the cross has been removed. I wish those who unsettle you would castrate themselves!
For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.

Matthew 16:1-12
The Pharisees and Sadducees came, and to test Jesus they asked him to show them a sign from heaven. He answered them, ‘When it is evening, you say, “It will be fair weather, for the sky is red.” And in the morning, “It will be stormy today, for the sky is red and threatening.” You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times. An evil and adulterous generation asks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah.’ Then he left them and went away.
When the disciples reached the other side, they had forgotten to bring any bread. Jesus said to them, ‘Watch out, and beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.’ They said to one another, ‘It is because we have brought no bread.’ And becoming aware of it, Jesus said, ‘You of little faith, why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not perceive? Do you not remember the five loaves for the five thousand, and how many baskets you gathered? Or the seven loaves for the four thousand, and how many baskets you gathered? How could you fail to perceive that I was not speaking about bread? Beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees!’ Then they understood that he had not told them to beware of the yeast of bread, but of the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees. 

Good morning, friends. I hope you are well, and pray for your safety and wholeness.

Today, we are in such confusing times. If I say anything I will upset someone. And if I say nothing, then I am moot. So I take the risk, and pray that I am sharing light and not heat. If you have issues with what I say, let us “come reason together.” Phone, Skype, whatever. I could be wrong. I could be right. My relationships with you are more important than being right.

I have a lot of freedom as a public speaker, especially in our polity. I could say anything. But because I treasure that freedom, I strive very much to not abuse or force my freedom and its exercise on anyone else. 

In the Gospel, Jesus confronts the control of the Pharisees, and their unhealthy approach to faith that Jesus calls out over and over again. God did not send Jesus to play Gotcha, and we as his followers should not exist to practice to make people feel condemned or less than. I saw a great line on Facebook yesterday. “If reading the Bible causes me to scrutinize others more than I scrutinize myself, then I am not reading the Bible correctly.” (@scottsauls on Twitter, found on Facebook) I trust that for real and substantive life change to happen, I have to let the Holy Ghost do the Holy Ghost’s job. That may be convicting our sinful ways. But that is not my job, or the church’s. Now I may confront something that is blatant and obvious, but it is not my job or role to convict anyone. Especially anyone apart from the Church.

We have been given freedom to do what we should do, and somewhere we have adopted the immature and adolescent attitude that we can do what we want. That is not the same thing. 

“For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” And because we do not see ourselves as once bound and now freed we miss the point of our liberation. Freedom, in all its manifestations, is the state of existence God enables for us and desires from us. 

I was flipping channels the other day, and one channel was finishing Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. If you remember Charlie, at the end, had broken the fine print of the contract he had signed, and “lost” the Chocolate Factory. Mr Wonka was cruel and mean and dismissed Charlie and Grandad. And then Charlie’s spirit came out. He had freedom to run away, and make a lot of money from the everlasting gobstopper he had been given. But Charlie, though disappointed, gave back the gift, closing off any ties from the Wonka Factory. In his freedom and his disappointment, he continued to do what he should do. And therein lies the test, the rub.

We have been set free, enabled, gifted, encouraged, to become our full and true selves in Christ. For freedom Christ set us free. For freedom, true freedom, Mr Wonka severed ties with Charlie to truly see who he was and what he would do. When I was a child I did not understand. Mr Wonka seemed mean. But now, when I see this, it reminds me of God. We have been given so much. No one prevents us from misusing and abusing, from sinning and blessing. We are autonomous moral agents, free to do what we will. And in so doing, we have the ability to be godly, or not. 

For freedom Christ has set us free, and in so doing God and everyone else, can see who, and whose, we really are. Amen

Wednesday, June 3, 2020

Year A Proper 4 WED 2020 Nullifying Grace

Year A Proper 4 Wednesday, 3 June 2020
Video from St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA
“Nullifying Grace”

Collect: Almighty God, on this day you opened the way of eternal life to every race and nation by the promised gift of your Holy Spirit: Shed abroad this gift throughout the world by the preaching of the Gospel, that it may reach to the ends of the earth; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Ecclesiastes 3:1-15
For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: 
a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted; 
a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up; 
a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance; 
a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; 
a time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to throw away; 
a time to tear, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak; 
a time to love, and a time to hate;
a time for war, and a time for peace. 
What gain have the workers from their toil? I have seen the business that God has given to everyone to be busy with. He has made everything suitable for its time; moreover, he has put a sense of past and future into their minds, yet they cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. I know that there is nothing better for them than to be happy and enjoy themselves as long as they live; moreover, it is God’s gift that all should eat and drink and take pleasure in all their toil. I know that whatever God does endures for ever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it; God has done this, so that all should stand in awe before him. That which is, already has been; that which is to be, already is; and God seeks out what has gone by.

Galatians 2:11-21
But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood self-condemned; for until certain people came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But after they came, he drew back and kept himself separate for fear of the circumcision faction. And the other Jews joined him in this hypocrisy, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. But when I saw that they were not acting consistently with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, ‘If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews?’
We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; yet we know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ. And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by faith in Christ, and not by doing the works of the law, because no one will be justified by the works of the law. But if, in our effort to be justified in Christ, we ourselves have been found to be sinners, is Christ then a servant of sin? Certainly not! But if I build up again the very things that I once tore down, then I demonstrate that I am a transgressor. For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not nullify the grace of God; for if justification comes through the law, then Christ died for nothing. 

Matthew 14:1-12
At that time Herod the ruler heard reports about Jesus; and he said to his servants, ‘This is John the Baptist; he has been raised from the dead, and for this reason these powers are at work in him.’ For Herod had arrested John, bound him, and put him in prison on account of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because John had been telling him, ‘It is not lawful for you to have her.’ Though Herod wanted to put him to death, he feared the crowd, because they regarded him as a prophet. But when Herod’s birthday came, the daughter of Herodias danced before the company, and she pleased Herod so much that he promised on oath to grant her whatever she might ask. Prompted by her mother, she said, ‘Give me the head of John the Baptist here on a platter.’ The king was grieved, yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he commanded it to be given; he sent and had John beheaded in the prison. The head was brought on a platter and given to the girl, who brought it to her mother. His disciples came and took the body and buried it; then they went and told Jesus.

Lord, do not lead me into temptation. In these days, there are a lot of easy shots someone could take with today’s readings. With Ecclesiastes one might say, everything is ordained and be very fatalistic. With Galatians, I could speak to how racism is and always has been a part of the Church. With the Gospel reading I could speak to how dictators are going to abuse their power. All those are very gestalt in their approach, and I cannot reside there. I preach Good News, or I hope I do. I believe in and proclaim Resurrection. I preach the Ascension and believe Jesus is at the right hand of God the Father. I believe that if we follow Jesus not just as our Lord but as our Teacher, Guide, and Mentor we can convert and transform and live life the way it is supposed to be lived. So when I read these texts, I cannot see through a cynical lens despite the fact that I live in a cynical age during especially hard times.

After praying, I feel led to speak to the Galatians passage in today’s short homily. To set the context, St. Paul is calling out the hypocrisy of St. Peter, Cephas, the Rock. In Antioch, he was hanging with all the members of the church there, the Gentiles (non-Jewish) and the Jewish believers both. But when folks came from Jerusalem (from our own James the Less, by the way, who was Bishop of Jerusalem) Cephas only hung out with the Jews. Paul confronted him in his hypocrisy, holding him to task. The racist practices of the Jewish believers maintaining social distancing from anyone not of Jewish descent Paul found anathema. “I saw that they were not acting consistently with the truth of the gospel…” Once he was converted on that Road to Damascus, he made a radical life change and called others to the same.

Once the Spirit led them to open up the Church of Christ to any and all, then Paul maintained that they could not go back. And then he makes it an example for a theological foundation. If you are going to live by the old rules you cannot claim the new reward. If you want the things that come with the New Covenant, you have to live the new and different way, the way Jesus opened up. The way of Grace. Paul argued it this way:

For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not nullify the grace of God; for if justification comes through the law, then Christ died for nothing. 

Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it like this. I have to live a changed life, to justify the price Jesus paid. Cheap Grace belittles what Christ did. Costly Grace is worthy of what Jesus did for me, for each and every one of us, out of love.

In these days we are facing, our country is being pulled apart by too many who want to live without change. But notice this! I love how in his frustration over Peter’s hypocrisy, Paul turns that frustration inward to ask the hard questions of himself. What is the log in his own eye, like Jesus taught, instead of fixating on Peter’s splinter. (He did confront him in love as we are called to do, but he maintains love and respect for this most close of Jesus’ apostles).

Friends, in these days of what about this, and why on earth did they do that, of pointing fingers and flinging accusations, I find I must turn inward and search out how I do not live by Grace. Where I don’t extend it, where I do not let it transform ALL OF ME. When I do anything less, I cheapen the love, the Passion, of what Christ did. God forbid “I nullify the grace of God…”

I urge myself, and all of us, to turn today to Christ. That is our hope. And these days it may be our only hope. There might be a time “to every purpose under heaven.” But instead of turning our gaze on these days of conflict, turmoil, rage, and fear, let’s look at the end of the story. Let us keep our eyes on the end prize. There will be good days, and horrible days, but these too shall pass. I want to be my utmost for the highest when the Final Day is here. Live with the end in sight. I close with the final words of the Ecclesiastes passage:
I know that whatever God does endures for ever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it; God has done this, so that all should stand in awe before him. That which is, already has been; that which is to be, already is; and God seeks out what has gone by.


Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Year A 7th Easter Ascension Sunday 2020 Getting Back to Better

Year A 7th Easter Ascension Sunday 24 May 2020
Video Worship from St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA
“Getting Back to Better”

Collect: O God, the King of glory, you have exalted your only Son Jesus Christ with great triumph to your kingdom in heaven: Do not leave us comfortless, but send us your Holy Spirit to strengthen us, and exalt us to that place where our Savior Christ has gone before; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.

Acts 1:6-14
When the apostles had come together, they asked Jesus, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”
Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a sabbath day’s journey away. When they had entered the city, they went to the room upstairs where they were staying, Peter, and John, and James, and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers.

John 17:1-11
Jesus looked up to heaven and said, “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you, since you have given him authority over all people, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. I glorified you on earth by finishing the work that you gave me to do. So now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had in your presence before the world existed.

”I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me. I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours. All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them. And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.”

Jesus led the disciples out of the city. In paintings it is always on overlooks like this one. And as they were looking on, he was lifted up. No one expected that.

It is not normal. None of this is. It is not normal for the Son of God to walk in our midst. It is not normal for miracles to happen everyday by the touch of a hand. It is not normal to see what love incarnate looks like, with a face and a name. It is not normal for people to go floating up into heaven.

Ascension Day was last Thursday, 40 days after Easter. This is the Sunday after, and it is called Ascension Sunday. In today’s Gospel we see Jesus in his final moments with his apostles, sitting at the Last Supper before he heads out to Gethsemane, then inappropriate Government and Religious condemnation, then Golgotha. The authorities thought that once Jesus was out of the way; they thought that things could get back to normal. We all strive to balance the equation, to find equilibrium, to recenter into the routine. We all seek Normal.

I do not know about you, but since this began I have been having a doozy of a time in my dreams. I am not sure if I remember more of them, or if I am living with the stress and uncertainty differently and this is my brain’s way of shaking off the ick of these days. But in them, the strangest things seem perfectly fine and okay. Celebrities acting like friends and running errands together, growing fields of bubble gum, chasing llamas through the church, all reasonable in these nighttime diversions. But when I wake up, and I remember what I dreamed, again, I have to ask, “How did I think that was normal?”

When I think back just a few months, I ask the same question, how did I, how did WE, think that that was Normal? Forget Normal. We cannot go back. I DO NOT WANT TO GO BACK. But once we have seen a truth, it is impossible to go back again. 

As many of you have heard me talk about, in 1989 I had an opportunity to serve International Baptist Church in Hamburg, West Germany, for the last few months that there was a West Germany. Those days of living on my own, guiding people in the faith and learning how to do that, were so important and life changing. The hard part was that I still had half of college to finish. I knew what I wanted to do with the rest of my life and I wanted the rest of my life to start right now. But seminary and ministry would have to wait. And in that in-between time, there was a tension. Do I continue on the path I started, or do I just go back to the routine. Even trying to go back and make it through classes was a deep dive into confusion. I could not imagine two more years of college, then three of seminary. That seemed like forever. I could not just pretend that that life-altering nine months never happened. Now the strange thing was that my friends just did not understand. They just could not. They had stayed home. They had had normal, sequential growth. I had had exponential, explosive, throw-the-baby-out-with-the-bathwater upheaval in my life. I could ignore it, and die inside. I could embrace it and be transformed. I was doing what I wanted to spend my life doing. I was running around in the middle of history, knocking chunks out of the Berlin Wall. An 8:15 class has a hard time competing with that. 

I could choose to go back to Normal. Or, I could embrace and chase the Better.

With the Ascension, the Apostles had the same choice, they could go back to their nets, and their ledgers, their Normal day jobs, or they embrace the Better. Thankfully I chose that route, and my life has been the Better for it.

I feel like that I am at that cruxpoint again. I hear that cry in the streets these days. “We have to get back to normal!” Well not me. I do not want to go back to Normal. With the radical shift in our economy, our environment, our ethos, we have been given a huge gift if we take it. Or we could go back to Normal, and this will have all been a waste. A spotlight shone down and highlighted that the pace and the consumption of our culture is killing the planet and it is killing us. This gift was costly, expensive, and horrible for so many. As usual, the greatest burden was placed on the poor. The social inequities will be one of the first things we have to dismantle and rebuild when we slowly come out of this. 

Like what Jesus was called, this is a Stumbling Block. (See Isaiah 8:14) We can claim it or curse it, but it is still there either way. We either ignore it or cling to it. There is no other choice.

Beloved, like the Disciples, let us get back to Better. Let us step up to the biblical mandate of loving God, others, and self. Let us care for those “Disenfranchised” as Howard Thurman called them. Let us Go and Share this Good News we have found with Any and All, yes even the plants, the sky, the water, the cosmos. Let us take this and be transformed by it, or we will certainly transmit the pain and grief that is holding us right now and as I said, die inside. We are still in this world, and may our Savior and our God be glorified in what we say and do. And in this, may we all be One, as Jesus prayed.

Don’t go back to Normal. Let us run to the Better. Amen

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Year A 6th Easter WED 2020 Ascension (Observed)

Year A 6th Easter WEDNESDAY 20 May 2020
St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA
Ascension Day (Observed)

Collect: Almighty God, whose blessed Son our Savior Jesus Christ ascended far above all heavens that he might fill all things: Mercifully give us faith to perceive that, according to his promise, he abides with his Church on earth, even to the end of the ages; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.

Luke 24:44-53
Jesus said to his disciples, "These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you-- that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled." Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, "Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high."
Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God.

It always surprises me that we allude to the Ascension, but that we do not give it much focus. At my home parish (St Andrew’s, Oregon Hill), there is an amazing Ascension Window above the altar. According to legend, Grace Ahrents (who was paying for this church for working class Richmonders) had ordered this window as the prominent highlight for this church.

In it, Jesus is ascending, and the apostles are standing in awe worshiping him. Across his body is a brilliant red sash. They un-crated this window which had come all the way from England, and she took one look at it and sent it back. Now it would take a lot of gall to do that, especially since it is hard to imagine something as custom as a made to order stained glass window. The ultimate combination of art and science. But why would she send it back? Most of us are unaware, but a true red in stained glass at that time came in only one way; it required the inclusion of gold. Not gold paint, gold itself. And Mother Grace knew when she looked at this tribute to her lord and savior at his ascension, she would settle for nothing less than true red. She had paid for true red, and this woman would expect nothing less. Yes, she was a woman. Yes, she was a Yank. But she knew enough, and was secure enough to demand the very best for this church, and for her Lord and Savior. It is glorious to this day.

Too little do we stop and remind ourselves that Jesus sits at the right hand of God the Father. So our faith tells us. I will have some more to say on it on Sunday, but ponder this.

I have often seen a bumper sticker or meme on Facebook, “What Would You Do If You Weren’t Afraid?”

And if we remember who we are in Christ, that is the question we must always ask. If we are Christ’s Body here on earth, if we are forgiven, empowered, enabled, and commissioned what can stop us? If Jesus is sitting at the right hand of God, what can stop us? When people ask how we might get something done, often I will say, “Well, I know a guy…” and I will work my contacts and networks to help make amazing things happen. Sometimes I think how cool it is to have an “in.” But we have the ultimate “in” with Jesus. I repeat. “What Would You Do If You Weren’t Afraid?”

And with Jesus where he is and with his command to be about his work here and now, what is stopping us? We call ourselves a Resurrection People. And we are. That is what gets us in the Door. But how we really need to think of ourselves is as an Ascension People. That is what gets us OUT THE DOOR!

Ponder that today. May we, “Expect great things from God; attempt great things for God.” (William Carey, c. 1790) Amen