Monday, September 21, 2020

Year A Proper 20 2020 Of Petty Prophets and the Abundance of God

 Year A Proper 20, 20 September 2020

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

“Of Petty Prophets and the Abundance of God”

Collect: Grant us, Lord, not to be anxious about earthly things, but to love things heavenly; and even now, while we are placed among things that are passing away, to hold fast to those that shall endure; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Matthew 20:1-16

Jesus said, “The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’ When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’ When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

What is fair? Truly? What is fair?

Too often we say we want things to be fair. The other word we use is just. And I think that that is a good way for us to structure our interactions. It should be the least that we expect in our civil interactions. I like that I do not have to bribe officials at Town Hall to get something done. I like when I get pulled over it is probably because I have done something and not because of how I look. I like that there are prices on things at stores, and calorie counts on menus. Well sometimes I like calorie counts on menus. I also want that for all people. For two thousand years we have been on a long journey toward fullness of inclusion and freedom for all people, and I cannot help but see this in the liberating freedom of our faith. 

But not everyone follows our faith, or interprets it the same way. A fair and just order in society is about as good as we can hope for, and as we have seen in recent months most vividly, we still have more to do. A lot more to do. Like many of you, the death of Justice Ginsberg was a hard blow. Love her or hate her, you cannot argue that she did not strive for full inclusion and full participation for all people. Just like the final vow in our Baptismal Covenant: 

Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human


I will, with God's help.

Our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry in his tribute said of the Justice, “the late John Fitzgerald Kennedy once said, ‘While on earth God’s work must truly be our own.’” I pray for the privileges of our society for all people here, no matter what they look like or where they were born. We say we want things to be fair, but do we?

So often, too often, I hear fellow followers of Christ expressing opinions saying how they will lose something if someone else gets something. This is not a zero sum game. There is not a finite amount of resources. I remember once I was playing the game Monopoly. And people either love it or hate it, no middle ground on Monopoly. But during this game I decided that I would have the goal of having all the Hundred Dollar bills. There were only so many in the “bank” and I wanted them all. The game came to a standstill once I had most of them. People could not make change. People could not collect their $200 when they passed Go. It stopped being fun. That is a Zero Sum game. But life is not like that, real life is not like that.

I win when my sister wins. My sister wins when I win. We all are bound together, even more so when we are united in Christ. I have been heartbroken listening to Christian brothers and sisters claiming that there is not enough for all of us, there is not enough to help.

We have readings this morning which look at the Abundance of God and the pettiness of some prophets. We have options over the summer months in our our readings from the Hebrew Scriptures. This summer we have been following Track II, which was our Jonah reading. In Track I, we see Moses dealing with the complaining Israelites. 

When Moses led God’s people into the scarcity of the desert, it was an act of faith following the call of God. God provided manna from heaven and quail for meat. Even in the desert times, God is a god of Abundance. The people complained saying that God only sent them to the desert to suffer, but Moses was not that petty. “Your complaining is not against us but against the Lord.”

When God sent Jonah to preach to Nineveh, he decided to run in the opposite direction. In his day and time, the whole world encircled the Mediterranean Sea. So Jonah decided to run all the way to Spain to Tarshish, the very end of the world as it was known, a city just past Gibraltar on the Atlantic. Jonah thought that he could get away from God. And we tell the story of the mighty fish who swallowed him and spat him up back across the Mediterranean near Nineveh. We usually do not tell the rest of the story once we get past the fish.

But Jonah did preach to Nineveh, and Nineveh repented, changed her ways, and started life in a renewed and blessed way. God got what God wanted, renewed hearts and minds in a massive city. God did not want to smite Nineveh. But Jonah, lovely Jonah, petty as always missed the fireworks. He was looking to the hellfire and brimstone that he had been envisioning and preaching about. He wanted the special effects of a summer blockbuster, not a love story with a happy ending. 

And in his pity party, he sat down. And God sent him a parable. A plant providing shade came, springing up in one night. And, then a worm came and ate the plant in a day. God confronted Jonah’s pettiness. 

But God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?” And he said, “Yes, angry enough to die.” Then the Lord said, “You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons…

Jonah, you care about a plant, but not about 120,000 souls. That is very telling.

God help us if we ever get like that. We are not here to make things fair, or to maintain the status quo. That might be steps along the way, but we are about something bigger, something better. St. Paul in Philippians urges us to not rush to heaven when there is so much left to do here on earth! 

Live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that, whether I come and see you or am absent and hear about you, I will know that you are standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel, and are in no way intimidated by your opponents. For them this is evidence of their destruction, but of your salvation.

The Church of Christ is about the unfair, mind-spinning Grace of God. God is a God of Abundance. God sends manna and quail in the desert! God saves a city of 120,000 from self-destruction and debauchery. God pays the worker who worked all day the fair, agreed upon wage, but to the last minute, in-by-the-skin-of-their-teeth, only-worked-one-hour person the extravagant wage of a full day’s pay because God is a God of Abundance. And in that surety of Abundance we can face anything that opposes the Freedom in Christ and the Love of God. Viruses, Racism, Economic Turmoil, utter Hypocrisy beyond belief. None of that can halt or hinder us if we stay firm and resolute in Christ Jesus.

I have quoted this before, but the only time we should ever look into someone else’s bowl is to make sure that they have enough. We do not look to make sure things are fair, unless we are the parent evening things out.

Life is not fair, in the negative sense. God is not fair, in the Abundant sense. You have been blessed to be a blessing! (Genesis 12:2) Friends, we are living in an age attempting to divide us. Our job is love everyone, the weak, the strong, the hungry, the oppressor. Standing with the Least of These will be called all kinds of names, but that is where you will always find Jesus. Our work is to establish and uphold systems of equality and justice, and change them when they are not that. When we falter, we call each other to our best selves, not by condemning or belittling, but recognizing and encouraging all to see the face of God in their sisters and brothers. I would rather to go to church with a bunch of messed-up people who were trying their best to love God and their neighbor, then to sit amongst a bunch of petty prophets and frozen chosen who cannot stand messed-up people. Jesus chose 12 “losers” and changed the world.

Who does God pick to be on God’s team? Everybody. God picks everybody. Somewhere along the way we took on the mistaken view that God is in the Church. When we are following Jesus, the Church finds itself in God who is out ahead, leading the way. Thanks be to God! Amen 

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Year A Proper 19 WED 2020 Crisis Point

 Year A Proper 19 WEDNESDAY, 16 September 2020

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

“Crisis Point”

Collect: O God, because without you we are not able to please you, mercifully grant that your Holy Spirit may in all things direct and rule our hearts; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

John 12:20-36

Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.

“Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.” Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die. The crowd answered him, “We have heard from the law that the Messiah remains forever. How can you say that the Son of Man must be lifted up? Who is this Son of Man?” Jesus said to them, “The light is with you for a little longer. Walk while you have the light, so that the darkness may not overtake you. If you walk in the darkness, you do not know where you are going. While you have the light, believe in the light, so that you may become children of light.” After Jesus had said this, he departed and hid from them.

Jesus is in a unique position in the way that John tells the Gospel story. And we need to unpack why this is so important. Through the Gospels, Jesus has come to start a devotion to God that will begin in Israel, and then fulfill the Hebrew Scripture prophecy that this little nation caught throughout history between conquering and warring empires was to bring a light to illuminate the whole world, or all the nations/peoples of the world.

When the Greeks approach Jesus’ disciples during the religious festival, Jesus takes it as a sign. His time has come. Those who were apart are seeking to be in on what he is bringing. And this causes a crisis.

Do not be wary of that word crisis. Often it can be a bad thing. And that is usually the only way we use that word. But with every crisis we are given a decision point. And with every decision point we are given an opportunity. You may have heard this before, but the Chinese ideogram for Crisis is the symbol for danger and the symbol for opportunity. I tend to see it that way, Crises are dangerous opportunities.

And as positive as that is, there is a cost.  “...unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” There is a price to be paid for anything of worth.

One of the deeply moving parts of the book The Last Temptation of Christ by Nikos Kazantzakis is this reality. This book, and especially the movie made from it, was controversial. Parts were taken out of context without the comprehension of what it was trying to impart. In it, Kazantzakis is exploring the human side of Jesus. It explores this very idea of sacrifice. It is human nature to get as much as one can while giving as little as possible. Jesus is given a vision of life if he let it all go, and he did not give himself up as a gift. He immediately chooses to give himself up when that decision point comes, but in today’s passage he is very clear that to get what we want we have to pay the price.

The old joke about the world famous pianist at Carnegie Hall, after the final ovation he is walking offstage and a gushing fan cries out, “Oh Maestro! I would give my life to have what you have!” And the Maestro responds, “Oh, but I did.”

Another way we can look at it, decide what you want your life to be, and say no to anything that is not that. Easy? No. Clear? Yes.

To live NOW in the KINGDOM OF GOD that Jesus talks about we need to follow him. “Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also.” Jesus shows us the way to live fully in the Kingdom of God right now.

Heaven is not the Kingdom of God. The Kingdom of God is when God reigns on this earth, in our lives, in our hearts. They way we live shows that we get it, that we comprehend what Jesus was saying. Grace is free, and living it out takes everything we’ve got. Amen

Saturday, September 12, 2020

Year A Proper 19 2020 As Many Times As It Takes

Year A Proper 19, 13 September 2020
Video Service from St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA
“As Many Times As It Takes”

Collect: O God, because without you we are not able to please you, mercifully grant that your Holy Spirit may in all things direct and rule our hearts; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Matthew 18:21-35

     Peter came and said to Jesus, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times. 

     “For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’ Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.” 

Last week we talked about telling other folks, and sometimes ourselves, “Get thee behind me, Satan.” Harsh words. Some situations call for harsh words. It is important for us to set clear and healthy boundaries for ourselves and for those in our care and keep. But then there is the other side of the clear and resolute, the harder one for me too often and maybe for you, too. The other side of clear boundaries is Forgiveness.

Forgiveness is a cornerstone of the Christian witness. I would say that seeing forgiveness is probably where I see in folks being “Christian” first. And for those who cannot forgive, and I see lack of Christian maturity in their faith in people who profess to follow Jesus. 

Every single one of us will disappoint, mess up, fumble, and just be plain ornery or obstinate at some point. Christmas Eve at the early service I told the story of how I had to go and ask forgiveness of someone I was horribly rude to, and how her forgiveness meant more to me than anything else I got for Christmas that year. I did not earn it. I offered my apology hoping it would be accepted, and I got that. And then I was offered Grace on top of that. That is what is the foundation of our faith, Grace. Unearned. Unexpected. Unbelievable. [LINK]

Forgiveness is a skill we all need to practice and grow in. I think a big part of growing up is learning to forgive, but not being a victim or punching bag. We have to forgive others, sure. Many times we have to forgive ourselves. Yikes, when we have really mucked things up that is SO hard. And sometimes we have to forgive God, too! Suffering, ours or others, is something I see so many hold against God. Listen to the Psalms. So many of them are people working out trying to forgive God when bad things happened.

Forgiveness is when we can be most like Jesus, our most godly. It is the moment when we can extend God’s Grace just like God gives us, making it “on earth as it is in heaven.” I think of the few sayings we have from Jesus on the cross. Think on the few recorded things he took the time to say. He had someone take care of his mother. Moms are important. He fulfilled prophecy by asking for a drink in his massive thirst. The body is important. He quoted Scripture with Psalm 22. Expressing faith in God is important. But the thing that is the most incomprehensible to those who do not get what Jesus was about was when he said, “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.”  Was it the earthquake when he breathed his last, or looking the Centurion in the eye that forced the Roman officer to say, “Surely this was the Son of God!”?

Forgiveness is the heart of our faith. It puts flesh on the Love. Love is not a feeling. Love is a committed decision. Forgiveness is us doing the interior work to remove anything that hinders our ability to Love. Both are active. Both can hurt because they are hard, deep work. 

There are so many examples I could give, but in the last 20 years the story that will stay with me forever is the school shootings in the small Amish community near Lancaster, Pennsylvania. A mentally ill man entered a small one-room schoolhouse and killed 5 students, injured 5 others, before taking his own life. These tight, insulated communities work hard to live a life fully devoted to the teachings of Jesus. They build boundaries to limit temptations but they do interact with the outside world.

[From this point I quote extensively from a StoryCorps 10 year anniversary piece. You can listen to it HERE.]

Their non-Amish neighbors are usually highly respectful of the Amish faithful’s choices, and that is what hit the father of the gunman after he heard of the tragedy. He said, according to his wife, “I will never be able to face my Amsih neighbors again.”

That week, the Robertses had a private funeral for their son, but as they went to the gravesite, they saw as many as 40 Amish start coming out from around the side of the graveyard, surrounding them like a crescent.

"Love just emanated from them," Terri says. "I do recall the fathers saying, 'I believe that I have forgiven,' but there are some days when I question that."

Terri finds it especially hard to accept that forgiveness when she thinks of one of the survivors, Rosanna.

"Rosanna's the most injured of the survivors," she explains. "Her injuries were to her head. She is now 15, still tube-fed and in a wheelchair. And she does have seizures, and when it gets to be this time of year, as we get closer to the anniversary date, she seizes more. And it's certainly not the life that this little girl should have lived."

Terri asked if it would be possible for her to help with Rosanna once a week.

"I read to her, I bathe her, dry her hair," says Terri, who herself is battling cancer. And, while she can't say it with 100 percent certainty, Terri believes Rosanna knows who she is.

"I just sense that she does know," she says.

"I will never forget the devastation caused by my son," says Terri. "But one of the fathers the other night, he said, 'None of us would have ever chosen this. But the relationships that we have built through it, you can't put a price on that.' "

"And their choice to allow life to move forward was quite a healing balm for us," she says. "And I think it's a message the world needs."

Forgiveness is the heart of our faith. It puts flesh on the Love. Love is not a feeling. Love is a committed decision. Forgiveness is us doing the interior work to remove anything that hinders our ability to Love. Both are active. Both can hurt because they are hard, deep work. How many times should we forgive? 7 times 70 times as many times as it takes. It is a hard, but holy, and necessary road. Amen

Wednesday, September 2, 2020

Year A Proper 17 WED 2020 Watch Your Tongue and Pick Your Fruit

 Year A Proper 17 WEDNESDAY, 2 September 2020

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

“Watch Your Tongue & Pick Your Fruit”

Collect: Lord of all power and might, the author and giver of all good things: Graft in our hearts the love of your Name; increase in us true religion; nourish us with all goodness; and bring forth in us the fruit of good works; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God for ever and ever. Amen.

James 3:1-12

Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. For all of us make many mistakes. Anyone who makes no mistakes in speaking is perfect, able to keep the whole body in check with a bridle. If we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we guide their whole bodies. Or look at ships: though they are so large that it takes strong winds to drive them, yet they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits.

How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell. For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, but no one can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so. Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and brackish water? Can a fig tree, my brothers and sisters, yield olives, or a grapevine figs? No more can salt water yield fresh.

Matthew 12:22-32.

22 Then they brought him a demon-possessed man who was blind and mute, and Jesus healed him, so that he could both talk and see. 23 All the people were astonished and said, “Could this be the Son of David?”

24 But when the Pharisees heard this, they said, “It is only by Beelzebul, the prince of demons, that this fellow drives out demons.”

25 Jesus knew their thoughts and said to them, “Every kingdom divided against itself will be ruined, and every city or household divided against itself will not stand. 26 If Satan drives out Satan, he is divided against himself. How then can his kingdom stand? 27 And if I drive out demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your people drive them out? So then, they will be your judges. 28 But if it is by the Spirit of God that I drive out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.

29 “Or again, how can anyone enter a strong man’s house and carry off his possessions unless he first ties up the strong man? Then he can plunder his house.

30 “Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters. 31 And so I tell you, every kind of sin and slander can be forgiven, but blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. 32 Anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but anyone who speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come.

These days, the Scriptures seem to be a stumbling block, the Lectionary selections anyway. We see repeatedly this tripping up and mirroring the current situation. Funny that way. (Or Holy Spirit? You make the call.)

And we see here both Jesus and the author of James to be saying, in a nutshell two cliches we bandy around. “Watch your tongue.” And, “The proof is in the pudding.”

When I was a child, like many children, I was pretty literal. When my mom would say something like, “Watch your tongue.” I would try, like when a doctor said that the only thing I was allowed to put in my ear was my elbow. Boy, did I try to make that happen.

But I cannot physically see my tongue, but I sure need to mind it. Putting so much content out in these recent days, I am constantly reminded that no matter what I say people are going to hear what they want to hear, no matter my desired intent. Thankfully, as far as I know, most people give me the benefit of the doubt, or reach out to clarify confusion. Please do if you do not!

Watching what I say is something both readings make sure that I do. Jesus cannot speak against himself or his mission, it is impossible, like my ear and elbow. James, likens our tongues to horse bridles and fire. Control or out of control, such importance to something so small.

In these days when we seem to be arguing over the meaning of any and everything, how we use our tongues are all the more important. I saw someone gloating over the CDC report that most deaths with COVID-19 were linked to underlying conditions. He was bragging about how he was right and this was all a hoax. Only 9,000 died of COVID. But that misses the obvious fact that it linked with other factors to kill over 180,000 so far. It may not have been the only gun, but its bullets did not help at all! But still my friend bragged about how smart he was.

The other phrase pointed to in both is “The proof is in the pudding.” We are known for what we accomplish. Our fruit shows what type of tree we are. Some people come across as nice and polished, but they leave a wake of disorder and chaos. Some people are barely noticed, but they leave behind a legacy of peace and love. What is it you produce? How is your life evidence of what you stand for? Does it line up with your words? I pray mine do.

God be with us in the living of these days. May we watch our tongues, and be careful what we say and how we say it. And may our legacy be in lockstep with our words, and may both be Grace-filled. Amen