Sunday, June 13, 2021

Year B Proper 6 2021 By Faith & Not By Sight

 Year B Proper 6, 13 June 2021

St. James the Less Episcopal Church, Ashland, VA

“By Faith & Not By Sight”


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


2 Corinthians 5:6-10, 14-17

We are always confident; even though we know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord-- for we walk by faith, not by sight. Yes, we do have confidence, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord. So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him. For all of us must appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each may receive recompense for what has been done in the body, whether good or evil.

For the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them. From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!


Mark 4:26-34

Jesus said, “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.”

He also said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”

With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.


I have shared in sermons that nothing is wasted in the economy of God. I have shared that God takes what we bring, no matter how simple or horrible, and transforms it to his honor and glory. I believe both of those things. Even the most tragic or traumatic can be taken, blessed, broken, and given in new and glorious ways. This does not make it easy or painless, but it does take our suffering and imbue it with meaning.


But today I want to explore another way of thinking on what we do here. Somewhere along the way some have taken to describing faith like it was a commodity, or some special, secret, insider information. “Psst, hey, have you found Jesus?”


But faith is not like that. In our book club this last week, Rachel Held Evans reminded us that, “Scripture does not speak of people who found God. Scripture speaks of people who walked with God.”


God is not playing hide and seek; God invites us to see Godself where we are whenever, wherever that is. Like the prayer at the beginning of our service, God is God of all times and all places. The Psalmist penned:

Where can I go from your spirit?

    Or where can I flee from your presence?

If I ascend to heaven, you are there;

    if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.

If I take the wings of the morning

    and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,

even there your hand shall lead me,

    and your right hand shall hold me fast. [Psalm 139:7-10]


So if finding God is not the problem, what image might we use for our walking with God?


We have a simple one on our campus, and there is one at Richmond Hill, and there are examples in many of our cathedrals, and in holy sites of other religions around the world. Labyrinths, I find, are one of the great spiritual metaphors for our journey. 


Solvitor ambulando is the Latin phrase meaning it is found in walking. Often when I am at a mental impasse, getting up and moving my body gives me the space I need to gain the true focus I have lost. We may yell, “Don’t just stand there, do something!” And sometimes that is exactly what we need. But walking a labyrinth is not there to arrive, walking a labyrinth is there to drive us inside, physically to the center of the labyrinth, and inside ourselves.


One thing I have always loved about the labyrinth discipline when I have used it is to ask a question as I begin. It may be something I struggle with, it may be a dilemma I am facing. But when I have gained an answer when it is Solvitor amblando, when it is solved in the walking, I have to remind myself that whatever I have received was actually already with me, or God chose to provide it when I paused and took time to ask. Labyrinths, metaphorical and physical, are there to drive us inside.


A well-designed labyrinth begins by skirting the center and then sending you out to bring you back in. Like with beginner’s luck, we are provided with a glimpse of how great it could be to arrive at our destination, and how great it will be if we keep on keeping on. The glimpse of the reward is key. Our spiritual life is often like that. In our Gospel reading we are given that as well. Some seeds spring up quickly, but they do not stay the course. Those that do come to fruition.


St. Paul reminds us that “we walk by faith, not by sight.” And that, “For the love of Christ urges us on.” The intentionality of the labyrinth is what we must trust. We will not be lost, we cannot be led astray.


Once again, from Rachel Held Evans:  “The difference between a labyrinth and a maze is that a labyrinth has no dead ends… [S]ome like to say, we make the road by walking, but I believe the journey is more labyrinth than maze. No step in faith is wasted, not by a God who makes all things new.” RHE, Searching for Sunday, p. 180.


No matter where we begin, no matter how dark the road we have trod, we must trust that God will get us where we need to go. It’s not like the old joke about the city slickers who were in a rush for an event, and saw an old farmer on his porch. In desperation they barreled down the drive and asked the farmer if he had heard of their destination. “Yessim,” he replies. “Can you tell us how to get there?” they ask, pleadingly. After a long pause, the farmer looks up, “Well, the way I reckon it, you cain’t get there from here.”


God’s path for us is not like that. Wherever you start from, “nothing can separate you from the love of God in Christ.” Romans 8:39


Once, when I was working at a summer camp, we went on a night hike. We had walked up a fire trail around sunset. On the way back it was a moonless night.  I had a younger hiker walking back next to me. I was a bit notorious for not using a flashlight for walking around camp, preferring to let my vision become acclimated to the dark. My flashlight was still in my pocket for this hike as well. The camper kept asking me to use my flashlight, but I reminded him we had just walked this path in the light, and walking it now was no different, except for us seeing everything more clearly. 


We continued on, and it was pitch black. I could barely see the dirt of the fireroad. By this point the camper was getting more and more scared and asked me how I could know which way to go. And that was when I said it was easy. “When I cannot see the road, or where to put my foot, I look up.” And then he did. There was a gap in the trees, and we could see the stars and the Milky Way above us shining down. We might not see the road, but the light from above marked our way to go. The road created a gap that showed us the way, all we had to do was look up.


There are times in our lives when our way is dark, or the direction to go is unknown. I remember that night. I remember the darkness. But I remember that looking up showed me the way. 


“If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” 


“We walk by faith, not by sight.” 


We can say that because we have walked this way before. It is safe. It may spin us out, but it always gets us where we want to go, where we need to be. Labyrinths are the nature of this life, especially our spiritual life. Anything we need, we already have or God will provide. And if you are fearful and not sure of where to place your next step, don’t stare into the darkness. Look up! Amen

Sunday, June 6, 2021

Year B Proper 5 2021 Divisions and Family

 Year B Proper 5, 6 June 2021

St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA

“Divisions and Family”


Collect: O God, from whom all good proceeds: Grant that by your inspiration we may think those things that are right, and by your merciful guiding may do them; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.


Mark 3:20-35

The crowd came together again, so that Jesus and his disciples could not even eat. When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, “He has gone out of his mind.” And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, “He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.” And he called them to him, and spoke to them in parables, “How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come. But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered.

“Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin”— for they had said, “He has an unclean spirit.”

Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him. A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.” And he replied, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”


It is so good to be back together. It has been so long. I know I feel like I have aged five years since we moved everything online. It is slowly moving back to normal. [For those reading this or watching online, today we are gathering in-person, inside for the first time since March of 2020.]


In that time the world has changed. We are different. We have walked through the valley of the shadow of death, and admittedly sometimes I did fear evil and a bunch of other things. And the storm may no longer be raging, but it is still with us. Pray for India, and Brazil, and all those places which still are being hammered by this pandemic. Many are still in that Valley of Death.


What has made it worse are the divisions, the working against ourselves. Machiavelli preached that the way to power is to Divide and Conquer. It is as old as Sun Tzu and The Art of War, and was practiced by Philip II of Macedonia, Julius Caesar, and Napoleon. A tactic that is as old as human interaction. We have seen it rear its ugly head lately, too, it breaks my heart to say.


Jesus had folks, his own folks, his very family, attempt to do that, too. Now, giving them the benefit of the doubt, they thought it was for his own good. “He is out of his mind,” they said to themselves. And Scribes tried to shut him down saying he was working for Satan. But Jesus responded to the crowd listening to what he thought of divisions, and those who might distract him from his calling.

“How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come. But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered.”

Thankfully we have not let those things or people who might divide us do that to us. We are still here, though the forces of division were substantial.


In the height of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln quoted Jesus here, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” This is true whether we are speaking of our nation, our community, or our church. The axiom remains.


In fact, the phrase that is used in the Greek for when his family thought he was crazy was not “He,” being Jesus, “has gone out of his mind.” The phrase used is “He is beside himself.” Divisions can be internal as well. We can set divisions up and wage war with ourselves. Jesus even spoke to that when he said, “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.” While Jesus was talking about seeking money, that idea of divided loyalties remains. We just cannot do it. We call it now the Conflict of Interest.


Jesus is accused of divided loyalties, preaching God and serving Satan. And he shows that that just could not be. It makes no practical or logical sense. But when we are divided in our minds, we hurt our cause and ourselves. Singular focus is so needed, as much then as now.


Getting to this point of re-opening has been a slug. No matter which direction we go, whatever decision has been made, there is a group questioning or opposing it. Our actions were no one’s first choice. But we did the best we could, with the information we had, within the parameters set by those in authority over us whether ecclesial or governmental.


Living in that struggle has been a stealing of focus for many of us, and like I said, being divisive in one’s mind keeps us from doing what needs to be done. A friend of mine made that tension clear in a recent Facebook post. I was already well into my sermon writing when I saw it, but it gives some handles to the issues at hand surprisingly well.


I have had trouble putting the tension I feel in many local churches into words but I think I came to a realization today (and one that many of you have probably come to a long time ago)....

Many see church as an escape from the "real" world and do not want to see that change. Others are pushing the church to speak more deeply into issues happening in the real world. These two realities are pushing on one another and the tension is draining.

[Facebook Post by Mark Snipes, 2 June 2021]


What is church for us? A fueling station?  A hospital? An escape from the outside world? A training school for sacred living? An embassy of the Kingdom of God? How we think of the Church drives how we treat it and one another.


As I said a couple of weeks ago, the Church is not a building. The Ekklesia  is the “called-out-ones,” but even then we have different views of what that means.


I think the Church is all those things I mentioned, and at different times it means different things for each and every one of us. And as we travel through the seasons of our lives, we are birthed, and we learn, and we grow, and we serve, and we eat, and we share, and we heal, and we die. It meets us where we are, and it helps us get to where we need to be. Paul described himself and his ministry like that, almost a vision for where the church can go.

For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though I myself am not under the law) so that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law) so that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings. [I Corinthians 9:19-23]

Jesus, like Paul, was focused on the outcome. The process was called into question. His own family, the Scribes, the Pharisees, and so many questioned what he was doing and what it could lead to eventually. But he knew what his calling and purpose was. Even to the point of redefining what for most of us is our most intimate relationships. 

Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him. A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.” And he replied, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”

We used words for those who are with us on this journey, for those who are with us in this Church. We are a Church Family. And our family is now scattered. Some are comfortable regathering, some are most definitely not. Some want us to rush back to normal, and others think we are moving too quickly. But wherever we are, here or staying apart, we are still One, One Body in Christ. And eventually we will all be able to regather. Our body has experienced a trauma, and we may have lost some feeling for a while. It will return. It takes time and patience to heal. Like it takes time for a seed to become a plant, there are things taking place, miraculous and magical.


Friends, sisters and brothers in Christ, we will emerge from this past period. We have much to be thankful for, yes even in these times. We celebrate that we can be together. We celebrate that we even are. I thank God that we can begin the process, and may we do so boldly and in faith that God has been with us, and will be, all along the way. Amen.