Sunday, March 29, 2020

Year A 5th Lent 2020 We are in Death

Year A 5th Sunday in Lent, 29 March 2020
St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA
“We are in Death”

The Collect
Almighty God, you alone can bring into order the unruly wills and affections of sinners: Grant your people grace to love what you command and desire what you promise; that, among the swift and varied changes of the world, our hearts may surely there be fixed where true joys are to be found; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Ezekiel 37:1-14
The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord God, you know.” Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.”
So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them. Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.” I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.
Then he said to me, “Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’ Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act,” says the Lord.

John 11:1-45
Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” But when Jesus heard it, he said, “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.
Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.” The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?” Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world. But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.” After saying this, he told them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.” The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.” Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep. Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead. For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”
When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”
When she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary, and told her privately, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.” And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. The Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there. When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus began to weep. So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”
Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”
Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.

The readings this morning obviously have a single focus. Death. As a preacher, I could do a lot of things. I could spiritualize it, and talk about resurrection. And that is certainly there. But where we are I think that is ignoring the elephant in the room, and diverting or changing the subject.

I could pump up the fear, and urge people to make emotional decisions that are not long lasting or sincere. There are too many that are already doing that.

Some might even politicize this and say that we are all over exaggerating, but science and integrity prevent me from going there.

So how do I read these texts today? I recognize them for what they are, and I recognize where we are. They are speaking to people that either do not know what is to come, or already know the rest of the story. We, like the characters in these Bible stories, are in the midst of horror and tragedy. Are we like New York? No. Thanks be to God. Will we be? Hopefully not as we practice Social, or as I prefer to say, Physical Distancing. (We are all still socially connected, thanks to technology for those of us who have it. Pray for those who do not, please.)

On Ash Wednesday, we make a point of our mortality with our liturgy and in our words, but for me our rite is more about contrition than the immediacy and the certainty of death.

The composer/singer Randy Newman (known for “Short People Got No Reason” and movie scores like the Toy Story series) composed a Rock Opera based on the story of Faust. It has many elements which mirror the story of Job, more than Faust. It gave him the chance to do some fantastic work on some profound theology, especially on the problem of evil, hypocrisy of religion, and death. In one of the songs, Satan is singing, laughing at humanity. He berates God for, “The invention of an animal who knows he’s gonna die…”

I have been giving a lot of thought to this lately. As many of you have heard me say, the three greatest days of liturgy in the Church are the Triduum: Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday, with the capstone of Easter Vigil Saturday night. On Maundy Thursday we revel in the intimacy and sacrifice for love sake that Jesus was to do. On Good Friday, we hold our breath in the horror of what happened to Love Incarnate. Most of us then jump to Easter Vigil, if you come to any of these special services. Not everyone does. But tucked away, often ignored by most, is the quiet and barely attended rite of Holy Saturday. It is often me and the Altar Guild who are setting up for Sunday and a handful more.

In the Book of Common Prayer, it sits on pages 283. That is all. A single page. A collect with 6 readings, 2 of those optional, and then a closing prayer. It speaks to the isolation, the fear of the unknown, the potential death waiting outside our door.

The Collect speaks to the historical events, while conveying the emotions that are all to applicable to our times:

O God, Creator of heaven and earth: Grant that, as the crucified body of your dear Son was laid in the tomb and rested on this holy Sabbath, so we may await with him the
coming of the third day, and rise with him to newness of life; who now lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

We are in this In-Between Time. Death is lurking at our door. For the Disciples it was the authorities, religious and Roman. If they could murder Jesus, they could murder them. For us, we may have the virus and not even realize it. We isolate. We quarantine. We Physically Distance. We await the coming of a resurrection. But will that resurrection from our self-entombment be for us?

Instead of a season of self-quarantine, I see the season that we have moved into as the Season of Holy Saturday.

Just as most of us skip this rite of Holy Saturday, USAmerican culture does not deal with sorrow, grief, or fear well. We ignore it. If we do not recognize it, like some fantasy-filled child in their imaginings, it is not there. Like a child, we cover our eyes. Holy Saturday demands us to see and know that death has come, and it could come for us, we just do not know. And that unknowing is the rub. The reason that Governor Cuomo of New York said in a press conference on March 22 this: “The goal for me: be socially distanced, but spiritually connected. How do you achieve [being] socially distanced, but spiritually connected?”[Source] That is where the Church’s call is today, and giving this season a name is a way to begin the response.

We do have a name if we choose to use it, and a liturgy that reminds us that resurrection is coming. But it is not just a day or a single liturgy; we find ourselves in an unintended Season of Holy Saturday. And for many of us recognizing and dealing with these fears and the associated feelings is something entirely new.

While Jesus gave Lazurus four days, we have been given weeks if not months, planted between horror and the unknown. Like the dry bones in Ezekiel, resurrection did come, eventually. I live in the hope of that, but for this season I sit in the reality of my mortality. Each day is precious. My family is dear. Our church family is dear. We stay apart in love of those we hold most dear.

In the Holy Saturday liturgy, we are instructed to pray the spoken anthem from our Burial rites. As the Holy Saturday liturgy directs, I close with it here as well.

In the midst of life we are in death;
from whom can we seek help?
From you alone, O Lord,
who by our sins are justly angered.
Holy God, Holy and Mighty,
Holy and merciful Savior,
deliver us not into the bitterness of eternal death.
Lord, you know the secrets of our hearts;
shut not your ears to our prayers,
but spare us, O Lord.
Holy God, Holy and Mighty,
Holy and merciful Savior,
deliver us not into the bitterness of eternal death.
O worthy and eternal Judge,
do not let the pains of death
turn us away from you at our last hour.
Holy God, Holy and Mighty,
Holy and merciful Savior,
deliver us not into the bitterness of eternal death.

During this imposed season, a Season of a prolonged Holy Saturday, may we look to the one who is with us always, even in pandemic. Amen

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Year A 4th Lent WED ANNUNCIATION 2020 Saying Yes

Year A 4th Lent WEDNESDAY Annunciation, 25 March 2020
St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA
“Saying Yes”

The Collect
Pour your grace into our hearts, O Lord, that we who have known the incarnation of your Son Jesus Christ, announced by an angel to the Virgin Mary, may by his cross and passion be brought to the glory of his resurrection; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Canticle 15
The Song of Mary Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55)
My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,
my spirit rejoices in God my Savior; *
for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant.
From this day all generations will call me blessed: *
the Almighty has done great things for me, and holy is his Name.
He has mercy on those who fear him *
in every generation.
He has shown the strength of his arm, *
he has scattered the proud in their conceit.
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, *
and has lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things, *
and the rich he has sent away empty.
He has come to the help of his servant Israel, *
for he has remembered his promise of mercy,
The promise he made to our fathers, *
to Abraham and his children for ever.
Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit: *
as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be for ever. Amen.
Luke 1:26-38
In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin's name was Mary. And he came to her and said, "Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you." But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, "Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end." Mary said to the angel, "How can this be, since I am a virgin?" The angel said to her, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God." Then Mary said, "Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word." Then the angel departed from her.

Today I will be short. But it is a simple message.

Today is the Annunciation of our Lord Jesus Christ to the Blessed Virgin Mary. Why today? It is nine months before Christmas. Let that sink in. Both for yourself, and for Mary. Once the Church set the Feast Day of the Christ Mass, they did the math. We could get nit-picky about what day it is, but far more important than the when is the what and the why.

Mary was chosen. She was the one selected to bear the Messiah, the Anointed One. As is said in the prayer, “Blessed art thou among women, and the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.” But her response could have been the monkeywrench in the gears. She could have said, “No.” Thanks be to God that she didn’t.

In my discernment retreats with the Diocese, one of the first things we talk about is God’s Call on our lives. We all have the chance to say yes to God. There are general calls to be obedient, devout, and upstanding people. But we also have specific calls. The people on the retreats I guide are asking if God is calling them to the ministry in the Episcopal Church. It could be something as simple as when we see someone and a little voice in our head prompts us to a kindness that may not make sense to us, but it makes sense to God, and the Holy Spirit gives us a nudge.

When we hear those calls, it behooves us to say yes. YES, YES, YES, YES, YES. Can we say no? Of course. But I think on the times I threw up excuses, or walked away. Those, looking back, are some of my deepest regrets. Hindsight is 20/20 they say. I know that to be true.

So, like the Blessed Virgin Mary, it is so necessary to say yes with our words and deeds. Like Mary we can proclaim, “My soul proclaims the Greatness of the Lord!”

Two more sidenotes. Tucked away in Gabriel’s message is a word for all of us, especially in these days. “For nothing will be impossible with God.” Claim that one, especially in these days. Today many Christians around the world are praying with Pope Francis the prayer Jesus taught us, the Our Father. Will it make a difference? Anytime a billion or more people focus their energies, how could it not? We will see.

Lastly, when I say Yes to God, there is a flip side. God has said Yes to me. God sees the person that God created and sees a need I am uniquely qualified to fulfill. Like with Mary, God says Yes to Us. In closing, I read this beautiful poem, “Annunciation” by Marie Howe.
Even if I don’t see it again—nor ever feel itI know it is—and that if once it hailed meit ever does—And so it is myself I want to turn in that directionnot as towards a place, but it was a tiltingwithin myself,as one turns a mirror to flash the light to whereit isn’t—I was blinded like that—and swamin what shone at meonly able to endure it by being no one and sospecifically myself I thought I’d diefrom being loved like that.

[Close with Sting’s Gabriel’s Message]

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Year A 4th Lent 2020 The Inner Light by the Rev. Becky McDaniel


The Inner Light

A Reflection on John 9:1-41, The Gospel for the Fourth Sunday in Lent

The disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”

The story from John’s gospel about Jesus giving sight to the blind man speaks to us strongly at this moment in time: “Who sinned?” “Why is this happening?” “Who do we blame?”  These are questions that we are tempted to ask when faced with unexplained suffering.  A dear student sent me a Biblical passage from Second Chronicles wondering about the description of a plague during the time of King Solomon and how it might relate to our current situation.  As you may know, in Jesus’ day there was a common belief that God delivered punishment upon sinners and even visited the sins of the parents onto their offspring.  Some of the great Jewish prophets disagreed with this perspective, and so does Jesus, as we see when he answers “neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.”

God’s works being revealed in and through the blind man always brings to my mind the amazing story of Jacques Lusseyran, the blind French activist who during World War II overcame many of the limitations of physical blindness by tuning into the light within him. His faith in the inner light led to a deeper understanding of outer events, and he became a resistance leader who brought safety to those who were fleeing German occupiers, until he eventually entered and survived the Nazi camp at Buchenwald.  If you have read the Pulitzer prize-winning novel All the Light We Cannot See, set in France and Germany during World War II, then you know of the blind girl Marie Laure and her spiritual gift of inner seeing.  The author of All the Light We Cannot See, Anthony Doerr, acknowledges that he owes a great debt to Jacques Lusseyran’s memoir, And There Was Light.  In his memoir, Lusseyran describes the inner light:

“Light is an element that we carry inside us and which can grow there with as much abundance, variety, and intensity as it can outside of us…I could light myself…that is, I could create a light inside of me so alive, so large, and so near that my eyes, my physical eyes, or what remained of them, vibrated, almost to the point of hurting… God is there under a form that has the good luck to be neither religious, not intellectual, nor sentimental, but quite simply alive.”

Lusseyran recognizes that God is in this light and that God is deeper than religion, intellect, and emotions; God is the inner aliveness that allows us to see from the heart.  Jesus says of the blind man, “he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.”  God’s works were certainly revealed in Jacques Lusseryan, just as they were in the blind man of John’s gospel.  And interestingly, the blind man in the gospel story recognizes Jesus as Lord, while most of the others do not, as they are more focused on the outer world rather than the inner light. 

So how do we, in this time of confusion and uncertainty, connect with this inner light?  When we find ourselves wondering “who sinned?” “why is this happening” “who is to blame” it will serve us well to shift our focus to the light of God within us, to deepen our prayer life, and to see in such a way that we may be fully present to those who are suffering, to those who are facing limitations or sickness, or are losing hope. 

Our faith in God does not call us to avoid suffering or to blame others for it.  Our faith in God calls us to enter into suffering, to accompany each other through it, to not turn away, but to hold one another through the darkness as together we begin to tune into the inner light.  We see in Jesus Christ that God does not turn away from human suffering, but enters wholly into it and transforms us all through his suffering on the cross.  As Christians, then, we are called not to turn away from the hurt of the world, but rather to enter into it on God’s path of transformation.  As we go forward, may our transformation be guided by the true light within ourselves and each other, as we walk this strange new day together, through the difficulties, through the darker hours, through the season of Lent, towards a light that is not far off, but rather closer than our own breath.

Let us pray.

God, in you there is no darkness; your way is the way of light and truth.  Give us faith in your light to shine hope into our lives this day.  Help us to journey to the depths of our hearts where your light shines most brightly, illuminating the darkness of our uncertain times.  Amen.

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Year A 3rd Lent WED 2020 Faith & Law

Year A 3rd Sunday of Lent WEDNESDAY, 18 March 2020
St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA
(Online Morning Prayer)
“Faith and Law”

Collect: Give ear to our prayers, O Lord, and direct the way of your servants in safety under your protection, that, amid all the changes of our earthly pilgrimage, we may be guarded by your mighty aid; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Deuteronomy 4:1–2,5–9
Moses said: So now, Israel, give heed to the statutes and ordinances that I am teaching you to observe, so that you may live to enter and occupy the land that the Lord, the God of your ancestors, is giving you. You must neither add anything to what I command you nor take away anything from it, but keep the commandments of the Lord your God with which I am charging you.

See, just as the Lord my God has charged me, I now teach you statutes and ordinances for you to observe in the land that you are about to enter and occupy. You must observe them diligently, for this will show your wisdom and discernment to the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, "Surely this great nation is a wise and discerning people!" For what other great nation has a god so near to it as the Lord our God is whenever we call to him? And what other great nation has statutes and ordinances as just as this entire law that I am setting before you today?

But take care and watch yourselves closely, so as neither to forget the things that your eyes have seen nor to let them slip from your mind all the days of your life; make them known to your children and your children's children.

Matthew 5:17–19
Jesus said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven."

Today’s lessons are on keeping the Law, obeying the rules, doing what we are supposed to do. When we do that, things will go well, it says to us. When we teach others to obey, it will go well for us. We live in a nation built not on blood, but on concepts and principles, we live in a nation founded on the idea that there are unwritten but unarguable laws of the universe that were granted unto us by God. From those inalienable rights that our founders agreed to be the case, we based our constitution and all the laws derived therefrom. We have faith in that. We have faith in our laws as a country.

The other HUGE part of that is that we have to have faith that EVERYBODY will also follow the laws along with us. Think of it as people driving down the highway at breakneck speeds. We trust everyone to stay in their lane, driving to care for themselves and everybody else. When people do not do that, it creates havoc and is dangerous.

Many of us were raised to respect and honor the 10 Commandments, believing that those laws also came from God. And from that our ethics and morality stem. We have faith in those religious laws, too.

Faith in the Rule of Law is one of the cornerstones of our culture. And slowly over the almost 250 years since our declaring our independence we have continued to work to establish the “more perfect Union” that we dreamt of at our founding. It has never been perfect, not yet, but I trust that with each new generation that we can get closer and closer to that bright shining city on a hill dreamt of so long ago.

Now what they were working for and toward was unseen, untested, and unknown to the founders (or anyone else in history), and yet they risked fighting and dying for it. They had faith in it.

Right now, I hope you are maintaining your diligence in social distancing. Once again, we are facing something unseen, untested, and unknown. Most of us are upturning our lives in response to these ideas that we have to take on faith. At the end of all this, many people will say we took these drastic measures, and for what? Friends, that is where our faith comes into play. I have faith from my friends overseas that things are very bad there. I have faith in the reports coming out that the virus is already here, and we are attempting to flatten the curve and drastically reduce the outcomes that could have been. As of this morning there are over 6,000 KNOWN cases, and it is in all 50 states. The trendlines are disturbing, and we are all working together to accomplish something that we have to take on faith. And in so doing, I trust that the reward is a big, fat nothing. No more cases in Hanover, no funerals that I will have to do, no friends or loved ones with diminished breathing capacity. The hope for a total non-event has already passed, so we can only continue and pray that there is more nothing than something. I pray that that Nothing is our reward for doing Something. If we keep the Law of “Social Distancing” it can be. But it will take us all. And from it we will all be rewarded. Please Lord, may it be so.

Friends, we are on the front end of this, wherever it may go. Unprecedented times, uncharted waters. But you are not alone. In the coming days we will be able to set up places for us to have interactive, virtual coffee hours and other ways for us to communicate and connect. We are social creatures. God designed us that way. You cannot tickle yourself. Let me hear from you. What are your needs or wants during this time? Should we do noon prayers or compline daily? Those things can happen. We are already planning and shaping the services for the days to come, however long this needs to last. We are praying for you. Pray for all of us during this season. Obey the Law. Keep the Faith. And Wash your Hands! Amen

Sunday, March 15, 2020

Year A 3rd Lent 2020 Fear is a Disease

Year A 3rd Sunday of Lent, 15 March 2020
St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA 
(online because of Coronavirus closing)
“Fear is a Disease” 
(This title is taken from Howard Thurman's Jesus & the Disinherited)

Collect: Almighty God, you know that we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves: Keep us both outwardly in our bodies and inwardly in our souls, that we may be defended from all adversities which may happen to the body, and from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

John 4:5-42
Jesus came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon.

A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.) Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” The woman said to him, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?” Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.”

Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come back.” The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!” The woman said to him, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.” Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming” (who is called Christ). “When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.” Jesus said to her, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.”

Just then his disciples came. They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, “What do you want?” or, “Why are you speaking with her?” Then the woman left her water jar and went back to the city. She said to the people, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” They left the city and were on their way to him.

Meanwhile the disciples were urging him, “Rabbi, eat something.” But he said to them, “I have food to eat that you do not know about.” So the disciples said to one another, “Surely no one has brought him something to eat?” Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work. Do you not say, ‘Four months more, then comes the harvest’? But I tell you, look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting. The reaper is already receiving wages and is gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. For here the saying holds true, ‘One sows and another reaps.’ I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor. Others have labored, and you have entered into their labor.”

Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me everything I have ever done.” So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there two days. And many more believed because of his word. They said to the woman, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world.”

Good morning. This is coming at a strange time in our lives. Last Tuesday for our Lenten Study we looked at a chapter from our book that was entitled simply “Fear.” And Fear is something we all have in our lives, whether we avoid it, ignore it, or get sucked right in. Someone sent me a fortune cookie slogan they received one time, “Fear is the darkroom where negatives are exposed.” For those who grew up in the digital camera age, you may not get the joke. 

But fear is, has been, and always will be with us. Especially in days like these. Even today, there is a famous line from Shakespeare, “Beware the Ides of March!” Here it is, the Ides of March, and we have fear aplenty.

The woman who came to the well was fearful. We can see that from a couple of things. Why is she coming at the heat of the day to do hard, sweaty work? Many speculate that she was a pariah, someone looked down on, shamed. Shame is a fear of the judgment of others. She avoided shame by not having to deal with anybody, alone, at noon, she comes to fetch her water.

I see her fear coming out in her cynicism. She is almost snotty with Jesus in her early responses. George Carlin said, “Inside every cynical person is a disappointed idealist.” Young, naive, hopeful, life became something that used this woman here at the well. She went from relationship to relationship looking for whatever it was that was missing. Security. Love. Survival. We do not know. We cannot. And most likely, the decision was not hers, but the abusive men in her life. But Fear is there, fear from shame, fear from dashed dreams. It is there.

And Jesus meets her where she is, and reframes her situation and in doing so redeems her life. This fearful cynic becomes the first Samaritan evangelist that we hear of. She found Living Water, and offered to all that she knew this hope she found. Thanks be to God.

I have hope from a lot of things. I have hope in the leadership that our Diocese has taken to love the most vulnerable during this time of fear. They recognize that it will get worse before it gets better. That is the nature of epidemics. Which is why waiting was the most dangerous choice. Leaders, true leaders do what needs to be done, no matter how hard it is. I am thankful for the clergy of Ashland. We are working with one another. We have had several conference calls to make sure that TOGETHER we are working toward the health and safety of our JOINT PARISH. Ashland is our parish in the Episcopal sense, but from the God’s Eye view, we collectively are the Body of Christ in this part of Hanover County. This is OUR PARISH. And I have never seen such a healthy and positive approach to ministry as I am finding as we work together. Again, thanks be to God! I have hope that we can drastically SLOW the spread, and we can isolate those that have come into contact with the virus so that our dearly beloved vulnerable brothers and sisters can be protected.

Like many of you, I have been reading a lot online about what to do, and what not to do. One piece of advice stood out, and made it simple. Act as if you were infected, and behave like you did not want to infect anybody else. Easiest rule of thumb on how to know what to do.

Life will bring us all kinds of things that bring and cause fear. This is just another one. But as FDR said at his first inauguration: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Fear is the enemy. I find it no accident that the first thing out of most angelic mouths is, “Fear Not!” Jesus even started that way a few times when he did something extra-miraculous.

One of the best responses to fear is do something. Do anything. Go for a walk. Pray. Call a friend. Check on a neighbor (from a distance). Sitting and fretting is the breeding ground of the Disease of Fear. And as our reading in our Lenten Study showed us, to me pretty definitively, Fear is a Disease. Just as viral as the Coronavirus, if not more so.

God’s timing is amazing. The lectionary is a gift. Today’s collect could not be more appropriate for our times. We prayed, and maybe we should keep praying this prayer during this pause in our societal dealings. I remind you of the Collect:

Keep us both outwardly in our bodies and inwardly in our souls, that we may be defended from all adversities which may happen to the body, and from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul.

Like Jesus taught us, the inner life and the outer life are BOTH imperatives. And these days we are, and should be, more focused for a time on the outer, our physical selves. But we are also in the season of Lent. This is where we focused on the deep and important soul work to prepare ourselves for the Easter celebrations. I joked with my kids when the Bishop instructed us to cease from public gatherings and worship that the Bishop just told us to give up Church for Lent. It was the joke of a moment. But maybe this is God’s way of commissioning us to do the work in the world. Perhaps by email, phone, or text, but we have been taken out of our normal routines so we can share Christ’s Love when the whole world seems to be coming down around us. It is not, and if we are feeling that way, God’s Love trumps those feelings. And as you go out, spend time feeding your soul. Read your Bible. Do Morning, Noon, or Evening Prayer. If you don’t know how, the instructions are in the small italicized print, the rubrics. If you do not have a prayer book, has it all right there. is another great resource that does all the page-flipping for me. I use it nearly every day. 

Friends, we are still the Body of Christ. St. James the Less is the Episcopal branch of the Jesus Movement in the parish of Ashland, and we band with our Presbyterian, Church of Christ, Methodist, Baptist, and Catholic brothers and sisters to do the work of Christ here in our part of the world, to the glory of God. So STAY OUT to Love and Serve the Lord. Be safe. Fear not. And pray and care for those who need it most. Amen.

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

Year A 2nd Lent WED 2020 Still Learning

Year A Second Week of Lent, WEDNESDAY, 11 March 2020
St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA
“Still Learning”

Collect: O God, you so loved the world that you gave your only- begotten Son to reconcile earth with heaven: Grant that we, loving you above all things, may love our friends in you, and our enemies for your sake; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Jeremiah 18:1–11,18–20
The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: “Come, go down to the potter’s house, and there I will let you hear my words.” So I went down to the potter’s house, and there he was working at his wheel. The vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter’s hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as seemed good to him.
Then the word of the Lord came to me: Can I not do with you, O house of Israel, just as this potter has done? says the Lord. Just like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel. At one moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, but if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will change my mind about the disaster that I intended to bring on it. And at another moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it, but if it does evil in my sight, not listening to my voice, then I will change my mind about the good that I had intended to do to it. Now, therefore, say to the people of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem: Thus says the Lord: Look, I am a potter shaping evil against you and devising a plan against you. Turn now, all of you from your evil way, and amend your ways and your doings. Then they said, “Come, let us make plots against Jeremiah—for instruction shall not perish from the priest, nor counsel from the wise, nor the word from the prophet. Come, let us bring charges against him, and let us not heed any of his words.”
Give heed to me, O Lord,
and listen to what my adversaries say!
Is evil a recompense for good?
Yet they have dug a pit for my life.
Remember how I stood before you
to speak good for them,
to turn away your wrath from them.
Matthew 20:17–28
While Jesus was going up to Jerusalem, he took the twelve disciples aside by themselves, and said to them on the way, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified; and on the third day he will be raised.”
Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee came to him with her sons, and kneeling before him, she asked a favor of him. And he said to her, “What do you want?” She said to him, “Declare that these two sons of mine will sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom.” But Jesus answered, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?” They said to him, “We are able.” He said to them, “You will indeed drink my cup, but to sit at my right hand and at my left, this is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father.”
When the ten heard it, they were angry with the two brothers. But Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

Watching my daughters grow up is one of my great joys and an ever-increasing heartache. I only have 175 or so weekends before my oldest flies the coop. Still trying to wrap my brain around that. Yesterday she cut off her hair. She has been wanting to do something drastic for a while. Short is better than blue, thank God. 

Some change is easy and fun. Like a haircut. A couple of weeks ago she got her braces off. Two years of complaining are over. It was slow. It was painful. It was expensive. But now she has a beautiful smile. It had its price. Time. Growing pains. Money. But it is worth the costs. Most things worth having are.

Most of us, once we get established, do not embrace change. When we are young, we run to change. That first ride on a school bus. That first day of changing classes. Going off to school. All of it change. All of it fun and exciting. Mostly.

But as we get older, change gets harder and harder. We resist. We are comfortable. We may change if there is something we really want in it. “What’s In It For Me” is a phrase for a reason.

This morning’s Scriptures look at change. Jeremiah at the Potter’s House: Can I not do with you, O house of Israel, just as this potter has done? says the Lord. Just like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel. And Jesus confronts people who would not mind changing things around, mostly where their seats are. They want to be in the seats of power. And then he says where true power lies, and it is not in seats of power, but rather in humble service. Jesus: “Whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.

Change is part of the call of God. Change your ways. Come, and follow me. Take up your cross. Die to self. Change is required. There is a reason when someone becomes a Christian when they can answer for themselves a “Conversion.” We are converted, changed, when we follow Jesus.

Michaelangelo, at 87 years of age, was asked how to live a good life. His answer, “Ancora imparo.” That is Italian for “I am still learning.” I love the double meaning. He is still learning to live the good life which means he is curious, and open to change. Also, he is living the good life because he is still learning. Learning requires humility, openness, and malleability. At 87 one of the staggering geniuses of Western culture was still open to learning and growing. May we be the same. 

Potter’s clay. Humble servants. Still learning. Embrace the change. God is not done making you the best you that you can be. Thanks be to God! Amen

Sunday, March 8, 2020

Year A 2nd Lent 2020 A Light In The Dark

Year A 2nd Sunday of Lent, 8 March 2020
St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA
“A Light in the Dark”

Collect: O God, whose glory it is always to have mercy: Be gracious to all who have gone astray from your ways, and bring them again with penitent hearts and steadfast faith to embrace and hold fast the unchangeable truth of your Word, Jesus Christ your Son; who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

John 3:1-17
There was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?
“Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

This is Lent, and on our path to the Cross & Death, there are steps we face along the way. Last week we looked at Temptation, and choosing the proper path, the path that leads to God. But avoiding the wrong path, and actually taking first steps down God’s way are not the same thing. That would be like knowing we should go right instead of left and then just standing still, smug in our knowledge that right was “right.” Sometimes we are so frozen in our tracks because our muscles are just not trained to do things differently, and sometimes it is hard to know where to start.

We are in the dark on what to do. We are clueless, and so we sit and wait. This works, sometimes. When I was a child, I remember being told, when you get lost, “STOP & WAIT.” My mom knew me well. She knew that I would try to come up with a solution, precocious, strong-willed, whatever you want to call it, I would try and find my lost mom rather than think it was me who was lost. The other thing besides stopping and waiting, my mom told me to ASK for HELP.

Nicodemus was a Pharisee, the self-righteous rule keepers that were the morality police. Nicodemus was not just a member of that branch of Judaism, but he was also a leader, a member of the Sanhedrin we learn later in the John’s Gospel. So as a part of the leading decision makers of his day in his culture, I tend to see him much like I was in my younger days. Wanting to find a way out of the situation he had found himself in, his mother must have been like mine.

He was in the dark, metaphorically, and lost, and wanted to find a way out. But he STOPPED & WAITED, and he ASKED for HELP. That is where we find him, coming to Jesus at night, looking for answers. He wanted to know what Jesus was about, and where he might go to find answers.

With his position, it is hard to get help; it is hard to seek answers. Jesus even says as much. Nicodemus was a teacher and leader. People had expectations of him, and yet, here he was. His steps had led him to Jesus. They had found him by night coming to this new young upstart who was shaking things up for everyone. But what Jesus had done was undeniable, unarguable. It was what it was. And because of that, Nicodemus is confronted with his ignorance, and confronted with a possible out. And so in the dark he goes looking for the light.

And so Nicodemus asks Jesus for help. He brings his questions to Jesus. When I am at my best, my questions drive me to Jesus, too.
“Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”
It starts very open. Very literal. God is with you, Nicodemus is saying. God has to be with what is happening. It is obvious. No person could do these things without God.

For me, the wonderful thing about this exchange, is not so much that it happened, but that Jesus lovingly and patiently walked Nicodemus, his sage elder through the Basics of Faith 101. Despite Nicodemus’ blindness to what is being presented, Jesus guides him through the steps to a foundational explanation of what we have come to call the Good News, the Christian Gospel.

People hold the reference up at football games, and I have seen it painted on quarterback’s cheeks. 

The reference is ubiquitous, and if you were raised in the Christ-haunted landscape of the South, you can probably quote it with me, in the King James Version, of course. 
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him, shall not perish, but have everlasting life. JOHN 3:16 
Those questions we have at night, those things that creep into our minds and keep us up, or worse for me, the ones that wake me up, are the worries, the fears, the what-ifs of trying to live this life. I hear Jesus reassuring Nicodemus at night, lovingly confronting his literalism, and inviting him to see a bigger God, not a God of Thous-shalt-nots, but a God Untamed, a God of Spirit that blows wherever God wills, a God of Grace beyond the scope and bounds of any legalism, beyond the scope and bounds of any nation (then or now).

That night Nicodemus was called to see an expanse of God’s Kingdom. And Nicodemus is wrestling with what he has known and taught, and what this new teacher Jesus is presenting. Jesus is presenting with authority and power. He is working miraculous signs. Nicodemus, after a lifetime of study and teaching knows that he has not and could not do these signs, and this has him questioning his own authority. It has him up late; it has him coming to Jesus by night. Nicodemus is wrestling with the nature of this relationship. Could there be something more? “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above,” Jesus declares, and in so doing invites Nicodemus to a deeper level, not just of understanding, but a deeper level of life itself. Nicodemus was called to enter into God’s Kingdom much like Abram was in our Genesis passage.

This morning we read the passage of the call of God in Genesis 12. That original pilgrim of faith, who was called from the known to wherever the Spirit leads, Abram set forth from Ur to follow God. Three chapters later he had this call affirmed in Genesis 15, with God establishing a covenant. Now Abram’s concerns could not be more physical and earthly, a progeny, a son to remember his name and continue his lineage. Yet God took that very physical concern and transformed it. That physical questioning, pondering, hoping, God took it and transformed it into an invitation to faith. Abram was wrestling with God by night as well, because the LORD invited Abram outside to view the stars, and even count them if he wanted to do so, and the promise wrapped in physicality became a faith-filled, hope-filled promise. And here is the shift, the reason we still tell this tale. Genesis 15: 6 “And [Abram] believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.” You see, like we hear repeatedly through the Gospels, his faith has set him free. 

And that is the rub isn’t it? The call of God comes to us all, each particular to who we are and where we are. We are called to see and uphold things we cannot see and things we cannot hold. And that is the nature of Faith, “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” (Hebrews 11:1)

And I will assume that you are people of faith, or people exploring faith or you probably would not be hearing me now. Something got you up on a cold March morning, and I am smart enough to know that it probably was not me. A call of God may have come through an alarm clock that went off an hour earlier than the day before [with Daylight Savings Time last night], and the response of faith was getting out from under warm blankets. Today, anyway. Sometimes believing what the clock says is an act of faith, on the first day of Daylight Saving, especially. 

In this season of Lent, I do take the time to ponder, to question, to explore my doubt. In the season of the Church Year, Lent is the Night. The time for haunting personal reflection in between the sunset of Epiphany, and the dawning of Easter. We are reminded that we are the Walking Dead. We are dust and to dust we shall return. And yet, in our walking stardust selves, Godself has breathed in us the breath of life. We can look at the stars and see that we are more than the cold, empty space, more than barren dust. We are fearfully and wonderfully made, and yet, we realize that this brief sojourn on this our fragile island home adrift in space makes us wonder, and sometimes makes us worry, and sometimes makes us question in the still of the Night. Like Nicodemus, we come at Night and bring the things that keep our souls from rest, our hearts from peace. And we lovingly trust the one of whom we ask. 

Like Nicodemus, I believe that Jesus will handle my questions, and even my frustrating ignorance as the ponderings of a growing child, curious, hopeful and trusting. And why do I have such faith? Because of what Jesus said in John 3:16. God loves us. God loves you , and God loves me. God loves us so much that he sent Jesus, Spirit in Physical Form, God’s very Self incarnated, so that I who have a kernel of faith maybe as small as a mustard seed may not die from lack of hope, but have a budding, growing, blooming faith that starts now and continues on into eternity. This little light of faith glowing against the darkness of the Night will one day be invited into its true home, the very heart of God.

What a promise, what beauty.

But because it is night, and because a curious child questions, I wonder about those who do not believe, or have not heard. What of them? This verse that has so much hope for me, who sees and identifies with this Son, this Jesus, and because I have faith in him I have hope, but I know of so many from incidents of life or accident of birth that will not or cannot believe. What of them?

That is where the verse numbers get in the way. My first grade self was taught to learn and embrace John 3:16, and it is good. But my current self, cannot think of that verse without the one that comes next. Jesus did not stop where we do. He did not put an ending there. He went on and he goes on still.
For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, so that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life. For Christ came not into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through him might be saved. 
This one who could judge and condemn my silliness, my ignorance, my questioning does not and would not, for he came to save me from myself, to save us from ourselves, and not just us, the whole of the Cosmos. That is the word there translated as world, Cosmos. Jesus Christ came to redeem and save all that is. Us at our worst, and us at our best. The messes we have made, and even the greatest glories of humanity. All of it is rescued, and all of it is redeemed in this one we call the Christ.

These are statements of faith, these are ponderings in this dark night of Lent. As I remember the dawn I am comforted when my soul rests in these dark times. This little light of faith holds back the night, because it is not alone. Even there, even in the darkest of nights, Christ is with us, ALWAYS. Brothers and Sisters, in this blessed Lent, do not wrestle with your questions alone. 

You see, we are at our best when we bring our questions to Jesus. He is faithful to receive us, and faithful to save, for Christ came not into the Cosmos to condemn the Cosmos, but that the Cosmos through him might be saved. Amen. 

Wednesday, March 4, 2020

Year A 1st Lent WED 2020 Come Open

Year A 1st Lent WEDNESDAY, 4 March 2020
St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA
“Come Open”

Collect: Bless us, O God, in this holy season, in which our hearts seek your help and healing; and so purify us by your discipline that we may grow in grace and in the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Jonah 3:1–10
The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, "Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you." So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days’ walk across. Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. And he cried out, "Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!" And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth.
When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. Then he had a proclamation made in Nineveh: "By the decree of the king and his nobles: No human being or animal, no herd or flock, shall taste anything. They shall not feed, nor shall they drink water. Human beings and animals shall be covered with sackcloth, and they shall cry mightily to God. All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands. Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish."
When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.

Luke 11:29–32
When the crowds were increasing, Jesus began to say, “This generation is an evil generation; it asks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah. For just as Jonah became a sign to the people of Nineveh, so the Son of Man will be to this generation. The queen of the South will rise at the judgment with the people of this generation and condemn them, because she came from the ends of the earth to listen to the wisdom of Solomon, and see, something greater than Solomon is here! The people of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, because they repented at the proclamation of Jonah, and see, something greater than Jonah is here!”

Expecting and demanding things from God is something I have always been troubled by. Even during Jesus’ Temptation story we looked at on Sunday, when the Tempter requested a miracle of Jesus, the Lord’s response was, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” We can sense Jesus’ frustration here, condemning those around him who were asking to see some power exerted. And Jesus refused. He did not do tricks; he was not a pet dog or a show pony.

Earlier in the chapter, verse 16 says: “Others, to test him, kept demanding from him a sign from heaven.” The word for sign here is more than a healing or a miracle like the Feeding of the 5,000. And what started this whole conversation was Jesus performing an exorcism. The word used in Luke for sign is semeion, which carries with it apocalyptic overtones. They were asking for more than an act, they were asking for proof of who he was. Mark’s version of this has another word for sign, dynameis, which would have been like the miracle he had just performed.

Those around him took for granted that they “deserved” it, and that they could “demand” it. Jesus saw through them, he saw the game they were playing. And here he brings in two historical references, and likens the faith of those around him to them. “No sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah.” Now Jonah warned the people of Nineveh, and all the people, from the King on down, believed the message of God as given through Jonah, and repented and were delivered. They escaped destruction by following the prophetic call to repentance.

The other reference: “The queen of the South will rise at the judgment with the people of this generation and condemn them, because she came from the ends of the earth to listen to the wisdom of Solomon, and see, something greater than Solomon is here!” This is speaking of the Queen of Sheba who had heard of the Wisdom of Solomon, and decided to check things out for herself. Even this foreigner would condemn those around Jesus, for she knew wisdom when she saw it. Those around Jesus, ‘had eyes, but could not see.’

Luke’s approach was always showing Jesus welcoming to those coming in, and harsh with those on who were close to (and should be in on) the action. We see it here in the references chosen. The Ninevites were a foreign power off in the East, far from Israel, and yet heard the word of God and obeyed. The Queen was from the South, most likely current Ethiopia (or maybe southern Saudi Arabia, or both hence controlling the mouth of the Red Sea). Her fame and wealth proceeds her to this day. She heard of the wisdom and sought it, and Jesus is greater than the Wisest of All, Solomon.

May we be more like the outsider coming into the Good News. Open. Receptive. Willing to learn, and change, and grow. When we have the heart of a beginner, we see the world very differently. Think of children stopping and staring, at most anything. Their wonder and reveling is far from the jaded folks Jesus condemned that day. Lenten blessings. Amen

Sunday, March 1, 2020

Year A 1st Lent 2020 The Expensive, The Slow, The Best

Year A 1st Lent, 1 March 2020
St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA
“The Expensive, The Slow, The Best”

Collect: Almighty God, whose blessed Son was led by the Spirit to be tempted by Satan: Come quickly to help us who are assaulted by many temptations; and, as you know the weaknesses of each of us, let each one find you mighty to save; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Matthew 4:1-11
Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But he answered, “It is written,
‘One does not live by bread alone,
but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”
Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written,
‘He will command his angels concerning you,’
and ‘On their hands they will bear you up,
so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’”
Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”
Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written,
‘Worship the Lord your God,
and serve only him.’”
Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.

Every Sunday, we pray “Lead us not into temptation…” but temptation is something we all face. We all are given a choice; we all have Free Will. We have the ability to decide whether we will take a path, or not. I do not think it is accidental that the first verse of the first psalm is, “Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked, or take the path that sinners tread.”

Temptation. It would be so easy if it were simply a guy standing in an alley with a trench coat whispering, “Psst, hey, come here. I have a great deal for you!” If Temptation stood out like that, like someone selling a cheap Rolex knock-off, it would be easy to walk away. But it is often not so simple.

There are a lot of views on Temptation. Some appreciate temptation...

Mae West said, “I generally avoid temptation unless I can't resist it.” 

While Oscar Wilde thought, “I can resist anything except temptation.”

My grandmother used to say that the best things in life were illegal, immoral, or fattening.

Temptation needs to be something you want. My girls are not tempted by Brussels sprouts. I am not tempted by spending too much time at the gym, to my detriment. But each of us have our preferences, and what is a temptation for some, is not for the next person.

But, let’s look at Jesus. He could have chosen the wrong. Like any person, fully human, he could have chosen to go the wrong way in the moment. Temptation knows when to strike. It is when we are weakened, by hunger, by emotions, by loneliness, by exhaustion. Jesus was suffering from all of these. The Tempter knew it. But Jesus took a moment to remind himself of what he wanted most. We may say he counted to ten, or his equivalent, before responding. He kept his eye on the prize; he kept the big picture in mind. And then he was able to counter with God’s Word in response. The Tempter saw his ploy, and did the same back to him. We will come back to that.

C.S. Lewis, in Mere Christianity, said that we often have a misunderstanding on Temptation:
“A silly idea is current that good people do not know what temptation means. This is an obvious lie. Only those who try to resist temptation know how strong it is... A man who gives in to temptation after five minutes simply does not know what it would have been like an hour later. That is why bad people, in one sense, know very little about badness. They have lived a sheltered life by always giving in.”
So succumbing to Temptation is like letting a pain overtake us. Once I had an eardrum that was infected. There were spikes in the pain, and while waiting for the pain medicine to kick in, I had a choice. I could give in to the pain, and let it overwhelm me. Or, I could say that I will observe it, recognize that it is there, and make the choice that I was going to not be overcome and let it move on through. I would breathe, wait, and let it go on by.

The best lies are the ones that are partial truths. The best temptations are the ones that are only partially bad. When we see some good in the Temptation, the lure of the momentary whether it be sensual or relief, we can easily rationalize and justify it. Our tempted minds are very good at that. My 12-step friends taught me something that I have mentioned before. When one is tempted, H.A.L.T. Never make a decision when you are Hungry, Angry, Lonely, or Tired. Recognize where you are, before that state rationalizes doing something you know you should not. That is the foundation of the whole Snickers “Hangry” commercials from a few years back.

And Jesus was “hangry” probably after 40 days of fasting in the Wilderness. Look at what the Tempter used to entice Jesus during his Wilderness experience.
He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But he answered, 
“It is written,‘One does not live by bread alone,but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”
When we are hungry, it is not a sin to eat. But look at what Jesus is being asked to do. He is being asked to do a good thing, but through evil means. I cannot tell you how often I have heard good Christian people tempted to let the end justify the means. Jesus did not do that. He did not abuse his power for a snack, no matter how nice that snack would have been.

The second Temptation is just as pernicious. 
Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written,
‘He will command his angels concerning you,’and ‘On their hands they will bear you up,so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’”
Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”
Now here, armed with the Bible, the Tempter does it again. He takes something that is true, and good, and warps it. The angelic protection of God’s chosen is being misused for the Devil’s amusement. Jesus knew that. And he knew that after such a stunt, he would never be able to rein in the fanaticism. His mission would be over before it began. He came to save the world, not to titillate and entertain.

And lastly, once again, Jesus came to spread the Kingdom throughout the world. But there are no short-cuts. The things worth making take time. Harrison, when he creates one of his beautiful pieces in his carpentry shop knows that it will take time. Jesus knew it, too.
Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written,
‘Worship the Lord your God,and serve only him.’”
Then the devil left him...
Jesus could have had the world with the snap of a finger, but it would not have been the Kingdom of God. It would have been a Kingdom of this World. And its impact would have been temporary, while Jesus was holding out for the eternal.

We see in the Temptations how much Jesus wished for the world to be changed. But he did not choose the easy path. He chose the right path. I had a conversation with a parishioner this week. I tried to encourage them by saying they were doing the right thing. Now the path they had chosen was a hard one, as the right thing often is. Comfortable inaction is usually the worst thing that we can do. Jesus was tempted to take the easy path, any of us would be. A gamble on a three year or so mission, with a handful of rejects who will be left to carry it out, with the goal to change the world, or a snap of the fingers. It really is not an easy choice. But Jesus chose the long game. We are here because Jesus chose the long game. We are here because Jesus bet on us.

There is a simple rule of economics. Three things: Fast, Cheap, and Good. You can only have TWO. 

  • Fast and Cheap are never Good. 
  • Good and Cheap are never Fast. 
  • And, Good and Fast are never Cheap.

Jesus chose the Best, the Slow, and the Costly. Having the best takes time. Having the Best is expensive. Jesus chose the Best. He likens the Kingdom he is building to many things in his ministry. A City on a Hill. Salt. Light. But one from Matthew comes to mind today, from Chapter 13 (v. 33):

“The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened. ”

Yeast takes time to rise. The good in us takes time to take shape. The momentary is a distraction from the good that we should, we can, choose. This Lent, let us be like Jesus. Allow yourself to see the Temptation, and the Tempter, for what it is. I see you. I recognize you. I reject you. Temptation is an attempt to Good, Fast, and Cheap. It just does not work. Jesus knew that the Kingdom was worth it. Jesus knew that YOU were worth it, and gave the time and space to let the yeast rise, and knowing that that would be far better. It would be worth the wait. And that is how he, and we, can overcome temptation. Amen