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

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Year A 5th Easter WED 2020 What To Do

Year A 5th Sunday of Easter WEDNESDAY, 13 May 2020
St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA
“What To Do”

1 Thessalonians 5:12-28
But we appeal to you, brothers and sisters, to respect those who labour among you, and have charge of you in the Lord and admonish you; esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Be at peace among yourselves. And we urge you, beloved, to admonish the idlers, encourage the faint-hearted, help the weak, be patient with all of them. See that none of you repays evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to all. Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise the words of prophets, but test everything; hold fast to what is good; abstain from every form of evil.
May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this.
Beloved, pray for us.
Greet all the brothers and sisters with a holy kiss. I solemnly command you by the Lord that this letter be read to all of them.
The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you.
Matthew 6:19-24
‘Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
‘The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light; but if your eye is unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!
‘No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.

Good morning. We hear from the readings this morning that a LOT is expected of us. Moses gives a list of the Lord’s expectations, in many instances echoing the Big Ten commandments. In Matthew’s section of the Sermon on the Mount, we hear Jesus saying the motivation that should drive us to do good. In what we cherish, we reveal our heart. 

In the First Thessalonians reading, we see Paul doing some Open Heart surgery. He is talking to believers, and gives a slew of things that need correcting or maintaining. In his laundry list, he still could be speaking to us today.

  1. respect those who labour among you, and have charge of you in the Lord and admonish you; 
  2. esteem them very highly in love because of their work. 
  3. Be at peace among yourselves.
  4. admonish the idlers, 
  5. encourage the faint-hearted, 
  6. help the weak, 
  7. be patient with all of them. 
  8. See that none of you repays evil for evil, but 
  9. always seek to do good to one another and to all. 
  10. Rejoice always, 
  11. pray without ceasing, 
  12. give thanks in all circumstances
  13. Do not quench the Spirit. 
  14. Do not despise the words of prophets, 
  15. ...but test everything; 
  16. hold fast to what is good; 
  17. abstain from every form of evil.
In these 17 admonitions Paul sums up how to treat others, and more importantly how to be. We are to be like Christ. Loving at all times. Forgiving at all times. Moving people toward their best selves, not who they backslide into when they are at their worst. And when they do that, or we do that, we get reconnected and start all over again.

When I taught Middle School, there was a phrase I used a lot. And some days I said it to myself. When someone had a bad day, especially in interacting with their peers, I would make a point to say to them as they were walking out the door, “Tomorrow is a new day.” And more importantly I would mean it. We all need a do-over every so often. 

This is such a key part of our Christian faith, we Episcopalians even include it in our Baptismal Covenant.
Q: Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord? 
A: I will, with God’s help.

And that is the beauty of our faith. We are empowered and enabled to be agents of faith on our own, and we are also bolstered and encouraged and forgiven and restored by God when we fall short, and as we all know, that happens far too often.

So today, my prayer for you is to live up to Paul’s words. Maybe try them on for size, just for today: Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances. Do not quench the Spirit. Amen

Monday, May 11, 2020

Year A 5th Easter 2020 Grieving... Together

Year A 5th Sunday of Easter, 10 May 2020
Video Service from St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA
“Grieving… Together”

Collect: Almighty God, whom truly to know is everlasting life: Grant us so perfectly to know your Son Jesus Christ to be the way, the truth, and the life, that we may steadfastly follow his steps in the way that leads to eternal life; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

John 14:1-14
Jesus said, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.” Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.”
Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves. Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.”

Good morning, friends. I was surprised when we sent the Friday updates out. Within minutes I started receiving emails from folks who said it really meant something to them. One was three words, “simply quite beautiful.” I was really shocked by that. But it struck me that maybe something in what I said was resonating. So I shared it on Facebook and was overwhelmed by how many people reacted, responded and shared it. Maybe that Holy Spirit prompting me to be vulnerable really was something meant not just for me. I am learning more and more these days that God has not abandoned any of us, ANY OF US, but the Holy Spirit is moving in powerful ways for the good of all of us. This is what I shared on Friday, in case you missed it.

“Today is Friday. These days I seem to have to remind myself of even simple things like that. We are now deep into a new normal. Some of us are afraid to admit that there is a relief in a slower schedule, a more livable pace. Some of us are very scared, desperate to make ends meet, but afraid that going out could be a death sentence. Some of us are angry that these emergency measures were taken or are continuing. Some of us are enraged at the choices others are making, and we belittle or react too negatively to them. 

We all deal with our grief in different ways. And we are all grieving. The biggest reality, that most of us are not yet openly discussing, is that we are all grieving right now. This is a global trauma that will shape the decades to come. We are coming up on the known death toll of 1 1/2 times the US troops killed in the Vietnam War. Think how long our nation had to deal with that trauma.

I had a real blue spell earlier this week that caught me off guard. I did not know where it came from, but thankfully I could take a space to stop, name what I was feeling, and do the inner work to ask where it was coming from and where my energy needed to focus to get to a healthier and better place. I prayed. I journaled. I learned from it and was able to take healthy positive steps toward wholeness and health. The warning signs were when I acted out of character. Thankfully I was able to see it before it continued.

Richard Rohr said, "If you don't transform your suffering, you'll transmit it." This can come out in so many ways. Snapping at those we love. Being rude to someone who means nothing to us, like a person at a drive-thru or shop. Numbing ourselves with food or drink or distracting entertainment. Those are all ways of transmitting or avoiding your pain. I hope you will take some time today and ask where you are in your grief over this season we are in the midst of now. Where are those who you hold in your care? Can you find healthy, productive, and life-giving ways to affirm, care, and support them (and yourself)? Can you express where you are and what you need right now?

Know that now is not easy. It won't be. What do you need to make it the new normal you want? What do you need to let go of to do the same? Those answers are as unique as your fingerprint.

I am praying for you.

All God's blessings,
Now being a big guy, 6 foot five, whose nickname is Rock tends to lead me to not open up readily. I am a big guy with a big persona. Admittedly. But even in these days, even big guys are feeling it. We all are.

In today’s Gospel, I hear Jesus confronting and dealing with grief.
Jesus said, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.
Leading through hard times is something that is never easy. But when I have had to gather and calm people, especially in fearful moments or days, there are some consistencies.

1. Naming it.

Things are bad. You are normal and right to be feeling afraid.

2. Showing Level-headed leadership. 

We are making a plan, and we will work the plan. We have good people making decisions and we will lean on their expertise to make the best decisions, and we will change things as necessary. It will all be okay.

3. Assuring us of a future.

The hard times will pass, and there is a future in this world, and sometimes in the world to come.

In the Gospel reading for today, Jesus is grieving, and modeling for his intimates healthy vulnerability, healthy leadership, and healthy faith. He is showing those closest, and us, that we are not promised a picnic. Hard days will come. We obviously know that now. But they will not last. And we will have loving, caring leadership to help us get through. As Jeus said, “And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.”

Friends, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in…” God’s Son, our Lord. And trust the Holy Spirit, especially in these days.

In speaking with my Spiritual Director this week, we talked about how the Spirit is moving in a mighty and powerful way around the world. He described it as “we have all entered into liminal space.” In other words, we are at a threshold moment. I so truly believe that, and by following those promptings of the Holy Spirit God’s dreams for us and for our whole world can come true. And we when stand at a threshold, it begs a choice. Will we stay where we are, or will we enter. Jesus promises, “Come unto me all that are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest.” Amen

Wednesday, May 6, 2020

Year A 4th Easter WEDNESDAY 2020 Lead A Life Worthy

Year A 4th Sunday of Easter WEDNESDAY, 6 May 2020
Video service for St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA
“Lead A Life Worthy”

Collect: O God, whose Son Jesus is the good shepherd of your people: Grant that when we hear his voice we may know him who calls us each by name, and follow where he leads; who, with you and the Holy Spirit, lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
1 Thessalonians 2:1-12
You yourselves know, brothers and sisters, that our coming to you was not in vain, but though we had already suffered and been shamefully maltreated at Philippi, as you know, we had courage in our God to declare to you the gospel of God in spite of great opposition. For our appeal does not spring from deceit or impure motives or trickery, but just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the message of the gospel, even so we speak, not to please mortals, but to please God who tests our hearts. As you know and as God is our witness, we never came with words of flattery or with a pretext for greed; nor did we seek praise from mortals, whether from you or from others, though we might have made demands as apostles of Christ. But we were gentle among you, like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children. So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you have become very dear to us.
You remember our labour and toil, brothers and sisters; we worked night and day, so that we might not burden any of you while we proclaimed to you the gospel of God. You are witnesses, and God also, how pure, upright, and blameless our conduct was towards you believers. As you know, we dealt with each one of you like a father with his children, urging and encouraging you and pleading that you should lead a life worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory.
Matthew 5:17-20
Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfil. 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. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

Good morning. I wanted to focus on this theme, “right living.” It flows through this morning’s readings. The verse that struck me most was that last one from St. Paul to the church in Thessaloniki. 
Verse 12: “As you know, we dealt with each one of you like a father with his children, urging and encouraging you and pleading that you should lead a life worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory.
We look at this differently when we see things from a different perspective. 

Jesus told a story of two brothers. One did what was asked of him after saying he wouldn’t. One said he would do it, but then didn’t. Attitude, and Follow Through both make a big difference, but actions speak much louder than words. We can talk a good game, and appear to be pious and holy like the best of saints, but we can still be a stinker on the inside with a rotten core. When God was speaking through Samuel to call David he summed it up well, “Man looks on the outward appearances, but God looks on the heart.” And the Heart is the heart of the matter.

We do what we ought because that is what freedom is. One of the great tragedies of our day is that somewhere along the way we picked up the spoiled brat way of thinking that Freedom is doing what we want. One of the great strengths of our nation was that we believed if people were given the ability to choose the best, and they were educated so that their choices were worth something then we would have the greatest nation, the most godly nation, the bright and shining city on the hill that would be an exemplar of the human mind and spirit, and that it would bring glory to God.

But somewhere we allowed a lie to come in and speak as if it were truth. “I can do what I want and nobody has any ability to tell me what to do.” Nothing can be further from the biblical mandate that we are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers, as they are ours. We are all mutually accountable and beholden to one another. I uphold the minority opinion’s rights, and one day they will uphold mine. Somewhere along the way we made it a game where there were winners and there were losers. Sometimes that language was blatant. God forgive us. When we devolved to that level of discourse we all lost. We all became Losers.

Today there are debates on caring for the Least of These. Others saying that more will be hurt if we do not get back to normal soon. Either way a hard choice will have to be made, and both will cost us dearly. It reminds me of a joke.

A chicken and a pig loved their farmer, and they wanted to do something nice. So they decided to make him breakfast in bed. The chicken thought it was brilliant. Eggs and bacon. What could be better, the chicken thought. The pig stopped him though, and reminded the chicken, “What for you would be a gift, for me would be the ultimate sacrifice.” Some are demanding this very ridiculous stretch on our front pages. That is hard to believe. I pray for wisdom and caution in these days.

We are encouraged to make the choices we make out of love. If it is out of obligation it is not love. In our personal ethics, and in our societal ethos, both require us to move and find our truest selves in the love of God, neighbor, and self. As St. Paul said, may we live a life worthy of God. Amen